Spate of thefts hits East African art world

Saturday September 03 2011

The stolen drawing. It is worth around $12,000, according to the artist’s UK dealer, Ed Cross. Picture: Frank Whalley

Take a long look at the drawing above… it might be your first and last chance to enjoy it.

For the picture — one of the highly regarded Queue Series by Peterson Kamwathi — is the latest work of art to be stolen in a spate of thefts that has dismayed artists, collectors, curators and dealers alike.

One of Africa’s leading young artists, Kamwathi left the drawing for exhibition at Nairobi’s National Museum.

It was snatched, still in its large cardboard carrying tube, before it was even put on the wall.

The theft was last week reported to Interpol by Kamwathi’s UK dealer, Ed Cross, who valued the picture at around $12,000.
He described the 8ft by 4ft drawing as “a masterpiece.”

The picture, in charcoal heightened with white chalk on paper rubbed with red earth, was taken from an upstairs gallery being arranged by guest curator Annabelle Hulbert.


It was to have been the major attraction of her exhibition Sanctuary: Home, Away, the Common Ground, a collaboration between five Kenyan and five UK artists.

The show was aimed at raising awareness of the work of the Whitewell Metropolitan Sanctuary for Sick Children, in Nyeri.

Hulbert later explained she had placed the work in a corner of the gallery along with other pictures waiting to be hung, no doubt assuming that the museum was itself a place of safety.

Investigation launched

For the museum, Director Idle Farah said the Kamwathi drawing was stolen before the museum was given responsibility for it.

He added that museum staff had launched an investigation to try to find the drawing.

Kamwathi is currently in Switzerland, having won a Paul Klee Residency, and was not available for comment, but Carol Lees, of Nairobi’s One-Off Gallery, who represents him in East Africa, said:

“This is one of the finest works I have seen by Peterson and its theft is an absolute tragedy. From a commercial point of view, collectors would be rushing to acquire such an assured drawing and I could see it being sold on the international market for well over that quoted figure of $12,000.”

Lees added: “It represents a substantial loss for the artist – and for everyone who enjoys fine art.”

From London, Cross said: “This is undoubtedly one of Kamwathi’s masterpieces, which would have fetched around $12,000 now, but could be worth vastly more in future.”

He went on: “Kamwathi is not just Kenya’s most celebrated young artist, he is gaining global recognition and at only 30 is well on his way to a serious international reputation.”

He confirmed he had notified the Art Loss Register and Interpol of the theft.

Only last week, Kamwathi was shortlisted for the Sovereign African Art prize and Sotheby’s will be auctioning one of his works in their Art for Africa sale in New York this November.

The theft underlines the fact that art is increasingly being targeted in the region.

When running the late lamented RaMoMA in Nairobi, Carol Lees reported regular losses when thieves struck at the gallery shop, taking jewellery, handmade bags and other goods.

Also a valuable Polaroid print of a boating scene on Lake Victoria was stolen from her new base, the One-Off Gallery at her home in Rosslyn.

Is anything safe?

Then in June, no fewer than 61 works of art including drawings, paintings, sculpture, 11 sketchbooks and five necklaces were stolen from the studios at Hillcrest School, Nairobi.

Much of the work had been prepared by students aged from 16 to 18 for their O and A level examinations.

Fortunately, most had already been judged by external examiners, although some of the sketchbooks had to be hurriedly recreated for marking.

Hillcrest teacher, the artist Miriam Syowia Kyambi, commented: “The school put up a cash reward for the works’ return but so far nothing has come back.”

And she added: “The theft of the Peterson from the museum is simply appalling. You begin to wonder if anything is safe.”

Frank Whalley runs Lenga Juu, a fine arts and media consultancy based in Nairobi.
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