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Kenya, Nairobi’s great art heist

By Valentine Njoroge in Nairobi
Posted on Thursday, 4 October 2012 07:53

The largest art sale in East African history took place in Nairobi at the end of June. Starting with a ‘grand sale cocktail’ sponsored by Radio Africa Group and The Star newspaper, the event at the Village Market exhibition hall brought artists, political figures and, of course, art collectors together to see and buy works by some of the great names of East African art including Jak Katarikawe, George Lilanga, Wanyu Brush and Sane Wadu.

If the proliferation of red ‘sold’ spots suggested the future for African contemporary art is bright, the circumstances leading up to the sale provided a more sombre tone. The story behind Gallery Watutu’s Special Sale of African Art includes death, debt-collectors, an illegal auction and the disappearance of cultural heritage from East Africa’s first, and most famous, gallery.

Gallery Watatu is a 40-year-old institution. Started by a trio of artists – the ‘three people’ of its name, Jony Waite, Robin Anderson and David Hart – in its original colonial-style house on Standard Street it boasted a rooftop where poets and artists could meet for sundowners and chinwags.

But the three struggled to make money, and in 1985 they sold the gallery to Californian gallery owner Ruth Schaffner and her husband, Ivorian artefacts dealer Adama Diawara. Schaffner had the connections and the passion to create a market for East African art.

She trawled towns and villages looking for artists, bought their work, commissioned more of it and showed it at Watatu to international buyers. By the time the building was sold and 22-storey Lonrho House built in its place, Gallery Watatu had helped launch the careers of some of Africa’s most famous artists.

In 1990 the gallery reopened in Lonrho House. On Schaffner’s death in 1996, Diawara continued to run Gallery Watatu, helped by Osei G. Kofi, a Ghanaian-born former journalist and an avid collector of contemporary African art. Kofi’s role increased in 2010, when the gallery had to be pulled back from the brink for the first time by Diawara selling his Spring Valley house.

In preparation for a relaunch Kofi computerised and documented the extensive stock of artworks and commissioned artists to create new pieces. The reopening on April 23, 2011 was a triumph, with Wanyu Brush’s Never, Never, Never Again, a post-election painting that has been described as Kenya’s Guernica, selling within minutes of the doors opening for KSh2m ($24,000).

Just a week before he and Kofi were to sign a formal partnership deal, Diawara died in August 2011. He did not leave a will so his estate was left in the hands of the courts, which took a long time to free up the gallery’s accounts. In the meantime, Kofi could not pay the quarterly rent and got into arrears of KSh1.3m ($15,500). “Previously we have managed to negotiate a grace period, but this time they were in a hurry to auction us.”

On 14 March, bailiffs from Garam Investments, a debt collection firm engaged by the owners of Lonrho House, raided the gallery while Kofi was abroad, seizing property worth KSh40m, far above the amount owed for the rent. Much of the art seized was not the property of the gallery.

“They had no right to take a lot of those pieces,” says Kofi fervently. “A lot of it belongs to artists and we simply take a commission from each sale. Our office furniture, our own stock of art, is one thing but they took pieces that did not belong to the gallery.”

GOING, GOING, GONE

On Kofi’s return to Nairobi, he visited Lonrho House management, who agreed that if he paid the bailiffs’ fees of KSh130,000 the rent arrears could be negotiated. Everything was to be returned to the gallery by 1 April and the auction, scheduled for 29 March, was to be cancelled.

Kofi returned once again to Geneva where his family lives, leaving his staff with instructions to collect the property. Garam Investments, however, refused to release the artworks, and eventually, at the end of May, sold them off at auction without informing the gallery, or indeed its clients, who would have been staggered to see pieces worth $20,000 sold in batches of 10 for $10 a batch.

According to Carl Wambasi, a founding partner with Wambasi and Company Advocates, the Auctioneers Act in Kenya states that while bailiffs are allowed to seize all property in a case like this, they should have notified the lessee, Gallery Watatu, exactly when the auction was to be held. The gallery could have then informed the artists, who could have claimed the works that belonged to them.

Gakunju Kaigwa is one of Kenya’s pre-eminent sculptors, working in wood, stone, plaster, cast concrete and fibre-glass. He had four pieces on display at Gallery Watatu, the most valuable priced at KSh2m.

“I consider the four pieces stolen,” says Kaigwa of his works, which were auctioned off at little more than a dollar each. “I do not even know for sure that they were sold; they may be sitting in a store somewhere. It saddens me because I can never recreate those pieces.”

Another piece from Kofi’s personal collection, by Tanzania’s George Lilanga, who died in 2005, was auctioned for $1.25, while its value to collectors was around $12,300, he says.

“Lilanga made tons of his distinctive sculptures but only four or five of ‘The Lovers’ series. All are outside Africa, except mine, which is now gone too.”

SMALL CONSOLATION

A second auction scheduled for 6 June was cancelled after The Star ran a story detailing the irregularities of the first. By early July, however, the property seized had still not been returned to Gallery Watatu.

The Gallery Watatu exhibition and sale raised well over the rent arrears, which Kofi was able to pay back thanks to his agreement with the managing agent. Proceeds will also go to supporting the families of artists whose work was siezed, and re-establishing the gallery in a new location.

But the question remains: why did Garam Investments go ahead and hold the auction when it had been agreed that the property should be returned? There are unconfirmed reports that just KSh80,000 was raised. On whose instructions, if anyone’s, were they acting? Garam Investments have repeatedly refused to comment.

Artworks denote moments in time. The loss of these pieces is not only to be lamented for their value, but as a theft of observations, reflections and commentary on East Africa’s zeitgeist. Kofi has registered the sold pieces with Art Theft Central, though experts say that only 5% to 10% of stolen art is ever recovered.

An incorrigible optimist might say at least Nairobi’s art scene is finally worth a heist, however clumsy●

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