How do you buy African art?

‘Obama’s Exit Party’ by award-winning artist Bertiers Mbatia whose newsy paintings sell globally. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU
‘Obama’s Exit Party’ by award-winning artist Bertiers Mbatia whose newsy paintings sell globally. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU 

One doesn’t need to be an art critic, art historian or millionaire to buy contemporary African art.

But according to Lara Ray, gallerist at the Polkadot Gallery in Karen, what you do need is to think about whether you would be happy having that artwork occupying a space in your house.

Whether the piece is to hang on your wall (as a painting, photograph or print) or be installed somewhere in your home (be it a sculpture, wind chime or stained glass window), it needs to be something that elicits good vibrations when you see it.

“Buying a work of art is a very personal thing,” says Lara who as her gallery’s curator regularly selects art that she feels people will like. “It’s all about making an emotional connection with the work. Then research the artist before you decide to buy their art.”


Dana Seidenberg concurs with Lara. She says she bought her ‘‘Cityscape’’ by the late Eric Omondi (aka Omosh Kindeh) because she loved it from the moment she first saw it on display in Westlands.

“I saw it again in Omosh’s studio at Kuona Trust and again I felt it spoke to me,” Dana said.

Describing herself as an environmentalist concerned with three key issues that Omosh captured beautifully in his art, Dana said his Cityscape conveyed the concepts of “income inequality, overpopulation and poor city planning.”

But James Muriuki, who recently judged the Manjano art competition, said the emotional connection between the artwork and the prospective buyer is just one of several criteria that should be considered when buying African art.

“There’s also the consideration of workmanship and quality of presentation,” said James who’s also a professional photographer and a former curator at the now defunct RaMoMa Gallery.

Heinrich Rossler-Musch, the gallerist and owner of Red Hill Gallery says first and foremost, someone has to like, or even love, a work of art before they think of buying it.

It’s got to “feed the soul,” in the words of the Kenya-based English painter Sophie Walbeoffe.

“My decision to buy a work of African art is usually one I’d describe as ‘emotionally ad hoc’,” said the retired German biochemist and former pharmacist.

Hellmuth adds the quality of execution is a key factor in buying art.

“Then there’s the aesthetic value and the conceptual meaning of the art. Does it convey a message, and if so, what kind?” Becoming a serious art collector in the 1990s, Hellmuth admits he initially bought African art that he loved.

“It was only later that I began to think about the investment potential of the art, which I now see as something to consider more seriously.”

At the recent Contemporary and Modern East African Art Auction, nearly half the artworks auctioned off had been previously owned by someone who wanted to cash in on their artwork’s investment potential. In most cases, those silent sellers who’d given up their art for auction were delighted with the results.

“It was a win-win situation,” said one happy seller whose only regret is she possibly should have held onto the painting a bit longer. If I’d waited a while, its market value might be more than what I got this time round,” she says.

Price range

Carol Lees has been curating contemporary African art at One Off Gallery since the 1990s so she knows quite a bit about how to buy the art.

“First, you should go to as many places where the art is being shown as possible. See what you’re attracted to, and then go on the Internet and research the artist, where he or she’s exhibited in the past; in what sort of projects have they been involved; and what sort of prices their artworks sell for,” she said.

Ultimately, after all the research and familiarising oneself with what’s available, it will again come down to what artwork you’re attracted to.

“There’s no right or wrong in buying art. It’s very subjective and it all depends on what you like,” Carol concludes.