Art buyers spent more than Sh30 million on paintings, etchings and sculptures during an auction in Nairobi last week, an indication that appreciation of contemporary art is growing.
At the Radisson Blu hotel ballroom, it was a jaw-dropping event filled with bidding wars and a slew of bold buyers assured that money was no object when their hearts were set on owning a particular artwork.
The Monday night art auction shows that art connoisseurs understand that good art accrues in value over time. More of Kenya’s wealthy are taking up luxury investments, according the latest Knight Frank Wealth report, with a majority collecting art.
“Each year, the auction continues to grow and enable collectors to not only acquire art, but also to learn about the important artists in the region.
'Every year, we have new collectors contacting us to bid as they discover the exciting diversity of art from across East Africa,” said Danda Jaroljmek, the director of Circle Art Gallery and founder of the auction.
This year's auction had the largest lot of artworks ever at 59, but it was more than quantity that made sales shoot so high. The quality of the works that Danda curated played a role in whipping up enthusiasm early in the auction.
Starting off with two celebrated Kenyan-based artists, Ancent Soi and Fitsum Berhe Woldelibanos, was wise since both paintings are among the artists’ best. Soi’s painting sold for Sh763,100 and Fitsum’s for a little less at Sh610,480.
A number of paintings went for more than Sh1 million. The late Ugandan Geoffrey Mukasa’s canvas painting titled ‘Artist’s Home’ sold for almost Sh2 million. His other paper painting ‘Under Palm Leaf’ went for Sh986,160.
The Kenyan artist whose two works also sold at vastly different prices was the late Samwel Wanjau. Wanjau’s ‘Woman Reading’ sculpture went for Sh845,280. His ‘Untitled’ buxom ‘Lady smoking’ sculpture sold for Sh455,640. But again, the difference is understandable, both because of size and subject matter.
There were a number of artworks that sold for over Sh1 million, such as Samson ‘Xenson Ssenkaaba’s ‘Matoke Farmer’ and the late Robin Anderson’s ‘Untitled’ (Women’s Market), both of which went for almost Sh1.4 million.
All of these sales were finalised at the hand and gavel of Kenyan auctioneer, Chilson Wamoja, who has worked for years with Antique Auctions, one of the oldest auction houses in Kenya.
This was the first year that Circle Art gallery invited a local auctioneer to take charge.
Chilson kept his cool even when the late Tanzanian Tingatinga’s two whimsical works came up for bids.
He and the audience had already been through several bidding wars. An untitled painting of an elephant eating from the Marula tree sold for well over Sh5.6 million.
The first of two Tingatinga paintings sold for almost nine times less at Sh645,700. His painting of a hunter with a bird was slightly larger than his elephant work. But here was a case where the buyer had his heart set on obtaining that Tingatinga painting.
Several other buyers said they felt similarly. For instance, Maria Amelina was delighted to have won the bid for Mohamed Otaybi’s ‘Flying Woman’.
“I simply couldn’t pass up what looked to me like an Islamic Marc Chagall,” she told BDLife after the auction, when a number of shoppers gravitated towards their prized purchase of the night.
Another buyer was Pamela Dale, an American working with United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) who had persevered in bidding on Charles Sekano’s painting titled ‘Blue Woman Sitting on the Beach.’
“I’d seen it in the catalogue, but when I saw it in person I loved it,” she said.
“I’m not sure where I’ll hang it since my walls are almost full, but I will definitely find a place,” she added.
Among the artists whose works had sold well at the auction, there was a general feeling of elation. Tabitha wa Thuku, Camille Wekesa, Yassir Ali and Sane Wadu were all delighted both for having their art selected for the auction and because theirs sold well. Michael Musyoka said he was humbled by the experience.
Meanwhile, the buyer who won the bid on his “Offerings of the Same Things” said she had bid on her friend’s behalf, someone she said had ‘his heart set’ on owning that painting. This was the second year that Nigerian artists were represented at the auction but the first time one of the five West African painters in the show attended the exhibition.
Chief Muraina Oyelami whose painting ‘Three Dreadlocks’ sold for Sh258,280 said, “We feel it’s a great honour to have been in the auction, and also to see how far Kenyan art has come. It’s clearly serving as a beacon light of artistic excellence for the whole region.”
Accompanying him was Chief Nike Seven Seven Okundaye whose paintings sold well at last year’s auction. She is also the gallerist responsible for bringing the Nigerian art to Kenya. She added that it was gratifying to see that all the Nigerian art sold well this year. Her former husband Twins Seven Seven’s ‘Hunter’s Dream’ fetched Sh587,000, while Bruce Onobrakpeya’s screen print on paper titled ‘Red Bird’ went for almost Sh400,000.
Kenyan art also fetched good prices. For instance, Dickens Otieno’s aluminium tapestry and Ancent Soi’s painting both sold for Sh751,360 and Sh763,100 respectively.
Edward Njeng’a’s terracotta sculpture was bought for Sh448,120 and the paintings of Sane Wadu, Richard Kimathi and Robin Anderson all went for well over Sh400,000.
The Kenyan artists contributed substantially to making this year’s Circle Art Auction the best one yet both in monetary terms and theatrically speaking.
“With over 90 per cent sold on the night, some many times over the high estimates. This year’s auction was the most successful. The ballroom was packed with over 200 guests, many actively bidding,’’ said Danda.