A Nairobi auction broke records on Monday night, making almost Sh21 million from the sale of 56 African works of art. Collectors snapped up modern and contemporary paintings, collage, photographs and sculptures in the exclusive auction organised by Circle Art Gallery.
The auction’s success is a reflection of the renaissance that contemporary art generally is having among the well-to-do.
According to the Knight Frank Wealth Report 2018, art is becoming the top luxury possession that the rich are buying. Forget about the classic cars, watches, wines and jewellery. It’s art, including African art, that had an outstanding growth rate of 21 per cent last year with classic cars and watches falling far behind.
“This year’s auction brought in new local and international collectors, some of whom were discovering East African artists for the first time,” said Danda Jaroljmek, founder and co-director of Circle Art Gallery.
She is also the curator of all five auctions, making her what the evening’s auctioneer Dendy Easton called “a pioneer” in East African art.
The most highly-prized artwork of the night was by the late Ugandan artist Geoffrey Musaka. His oil painting done in 1993, ‘In the Sugar Plantation’ went for Sh1.9 million. The artist’s works have been sought-after by international collectors for many years.
Meanwhile, Ghanaian artist Ablaze Glover’s painting ‘Market Chaos’ also went for over Sh1 million.
There was a lively bidding war for Yony Waite’s ‘Cameleopard in the Clearing’.
The one bidding by phone from the USA ultimately secured the 1989 painting for Sh1.4 million. It is one of the most subtly colourful works by the Kenyan artist who is best known for her stunning black and white oil paintings.
But Ms Waite’s work was not the only one that elicited a bidding war. There were several more ‘wars’ over amazing artworks coming from all over Africa, including DR Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Nigeria, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda.
In part, the combative bids picked up quickly by the eagle-eyed former Sotheby’s auctioneer Mr Easton, had to do with the quality of works curated by Ms Jaroljmek who this year assembled artworks from 10 African countries.
The art auction is a strictly confidential affair with bidders’ and buyers’ identities carefully guarded.
At the auction, there was a table set up near the auctioneer where proxy bidders sat glued to mobile phones as they listened to clients making instant decisions, whether to up the ante or not.
When Mukasa’s other painting in the auction, ‘Birds at Home’ done 29 years ago, went on the auction block, it got bidders going both by phone and from the floor. Ultimately, the winning sale was for Sh997,900.
The energy in the room had warmed up early in the night and it wasn’t long before a second slightly shorter ‘war’ got underway for Peterson Kamwathi’s 2007 ‘Untitled’ sheep done in charcoal and pastel on paper. The artist is one of Kenya’s most acclaimed painters. His sheep sold for Sh939,200, which was right within the range of valuation that Ms Jarolmjek had estimated and included in the catalogue.
She informed BDLife before the auction that a good deal of research goes into making an estimated valuation of every artwork in the auction.
‘‘But it isn’t just the quality of an artist’s technique that counts. It’s also the history of previous sales of an artist’s works, among other factors, that affects the valuation,’’ she added.
In the case of Rashid Diab, one of Sudan’s most celebrated painters, the bidding for his beautiful ‘Bird Omen’ reached Sh1.4 million.
But as that figure was below the low end of the estimated valuation, the artwork could not be sold.
Nonetheless, it was a thrill to see young Sudanese artist Miske Mohmmed’s ‘Untitled’ painting inspire a mini-spat that led to her colourful acrylic on canvas work go for Sh446,120.
But Miske was one of just eight women artists in the auction this year. The others included the 90-year-old Kenyan artist Rosemary Karuga whose ‘Untitled’ collage went for Sh281,760.
Photographers also had work in the auction. Congolese Gosette Lubondo’s ‘Imaginary Trip’ got a top bid of Sh270,000 just below the minimum required, so that sale is pending. Another photo artwork by Ethiopia’s Eyerusalem Jirenga sold for Sh234,800.
This year’s art auction attracted a host of new bidders. Some were invisible, as they only bid by phone; others having heard the auction was an important place to be if one wanted a ‘crash course’ in what’s happening around East Africa artistically.
Lorraine Maina, the regional marketing manager for Microsoft who attended her first East African art auction on Monday was thrilled with the prospect of coming back and bidding next year.
But there were also veteran auction attendants like Karuga Koinange, an architect and an art collector who is now the proud owner of Fabian Mpagi’s 1996 painting, ‘Masquerae Fetish’.
“I’ve attended all five auctions and I always take home at least one painting,” said Mr Koinange who was among the 200 collectors as well as many absentee and telephone bidders at the auction.
“I enjoy being supportive of African art,” he said.
Last year’s auction
African art is attracting investors from all over the world. Sotheby’s, one of the world’s largest brokers of fine art, for instance, started to hold contemporary African art auctions last year.
However, the closest they came to featuring East Africa artists was Uganda. Focus has mainly been on South African art and on West African artists like El Anatsui.
In contrast, the UK auction house Bonhams was auctioning Kenyan artists’ works back in 2013. However, the revenue from those sales did not go to the artists. They went into a fund meant to promote ‘visual art education in Kenya.’
For the past five years, the auction has attracted high net worth art collectors who bid energetically on phone or on the floor for pieces dating from the 1960s.
Last year’s auction netted about Sh19.2 million.
‘‘We are proud that the auction has continued to grow and build a space for collectors of African art and members of the East African business community to not only acquire art, but also to be able to learn about the important artists in the region,” said Ms Jaroljmek.