By Margaretta wa Gacheru
When the artwork of eight Kenyan artists went to the Bonhams’ contemporary African art auction in London late last month, it was an unprecedented event.
Bonhams, being one of the oldest auction houses in the world, having opened for business back in the mid-18th century, only began auctioning contemporary and modern African art in 2009.
And before this last May, there were only a few East African artists whose artwork was auctioned at Bonhams, but even then, it was only a handful of Ugandans like Jak Katarikawe and the late Geoffrey Mukase, and Tanzanians like another deceased artist George Lilanga, who were included in the annual event.
It was actually Bonhams’ director of contemporary African art, Giles Peppiatt who decided the time was ripe for Kenyan artists to be included in the May auctions.
According to Danda Jaroljmek, the former director of Kuona Trust and current co-director of Circle Art Agency, it was Peppiatt who invited one of Britain’s biggest African art collectors, Robert Devereau, to suggest eight Kenyan artists whose work could go on the auction block this year. They would be included not in the major annual auction which was held May 22nd but in the charity auction held two days before. The ‘charity’ to which all the funds raised from that auction would go would be Devereau’s own African Arts Trust.
Devereau agreed and then enlisted Jaroljmek to help him select the eight, who included Anthony Okello, Peterson Kamwathi, Joseph ‘Bertiers’ Mbatia, Paul Onditi, Michael Soi, Cyrus Ng’ang’a Kabiru, Beatrice Wanjiku Njoroge and James Muriuki.
All eight agreed to donate every penny of the purse earned through the auction of their art to the African
Arts Trust, especially as Devereau insisted the funds raised would go to assisting art projects that the eight identified.
In total, the auction earned 20,000 pounds (or KSh2.6 million) from the sale of the eight artworks. And for every one of the artists, the sale of their work was unprecedented. For instance, Okello’s Masquerage went for 5000 pounds (or approximately KSh650,000), Bertiers’ Yesterday Afternoon went for 3.200 pounds (or almost KSh416,000),  both Peterson Kamwathi’s and Michael Soi’s art went for 2600 pounds (or nearly ..) while Onditi’s went for 2200 pounds, Beatrice’s went for 2000 pounds, one pair of Cyrus’s Stunners went for 1200 pounds, and one photograph by James Muriuki went for 1000 pounds.
In contrast, one painting by Jak Katarikawe which was auctioned two days later sold for 2800 pounds, which was less than both Okello’s and Bertiers’s paintings.
Observing that all eight artists willingly agreed not to get even a small percentage from the sale of their art, Jaroljmedk noted, “They all understood that their gain might not be monetary, but having their art auctioned at Bonhams was an asset that was bound to advance their professional careers.”
Following in Bonhams’ footsteps, Jaroljmek added that the Circle Art Agency was already organizing their first contemporary Kenyan art auction which was set for November 5th at the brand new five star hotel in Westlands, the Villa Rossi, which is opening later this year.
And while she hasn’t yet selected the artwork that will be up for auctioning, she predicts there will be between 40 and 50 artworks involved. To add to the buzz she hopes to see percolate prior to November, she said one of Bonhams’ best auctioneers will come to Kenya especially to conduct the Circle Art Auction. And for any local art collector who’d like to have one of their own works of contemporary Kenyan art in the auction, they need only visit to find out how that can be done.

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