GALLERIES: Taking a chance on the market...

Friday February 17 2017

Left, Watu Wanajiandaa, by George Lilanga; and right, Watching, by John Diang’a. PHOTOS | FRANK WHALLEY

They say the best way to test the financial value of a work of art is to send it to auction. Let the market decide; the market is always right, the argument goes.

That is probably true as long as you do not confuse market value with artistic worth. I always think of the comment by Oscar Wilde… “A fool knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

Also, it is an odd fact that sellers send work to auction believing it will attract the highest price, while buyers trot along hoping for a bargain.

Surely they cannot both be right. Or can they?

I know an amateur collector who recently bought three felt tip drawings by the American graffiti artist and social activist Keith Haring at a New York auction for around $1,200 apiece, compared with gallery prices of up to 10 times that figure.

And good works by major artists frequently change hands for a fraction of their gallery prices. A drawing by Henry Moore went in the UK for $3,000, and one by the hugely influential artists’ artist David Bomberg recently sold for $1,500, for example.


So is an auction the place to go for a bargain?

Well, in theory yes, but you have to factor in the possibilities of an overheated market, when there is free champagne to encourage the bids, the excitement is rising and collectors clash. Then buying becomes a matter of pride and the subject of willy-waving rather than considered artistic judgment.

Keith Haring, by the way, found inspiration for his interlaced figures and cheerily dancing men and women in the swirling mesh of mischievous shetani painted by Tanzania’s George Lilanga… and there is an excellent example of Lilanga’s work to be found in the next major art auction in East Africa, organised by the Circle Art Agency.

Back after one missed year for its fourth edition, and with a change of venue, the auction has forsaken the Babylonian plushness of the Hotel Villa Rosa Kempinski for the more central Hotel Intercontinental and takes place on February 27.

If you want to browse the 54 lots, they are all on show at the Circle Art Gallery in Lavington, Nairobi, until February 24, but if you want to buy, you have to bid — and entry to the auction is restricted to those who have first registered with Circle.

Prominently on display there is the Lilanga from the collection of Marc Van Rampelberg, and at 122cm by 82cm it is a handsome piece, in Lilanga’s typical pink, mauve, grey and taupe.

Also by Lilanga and from the same source is one of his quirky painted figure sculptures; this one of a shetani playing the guitar.

It has a slightly damaged leg that would be easy enough to restore, but with the estimate ranging from $1,870 to $3,740 it does not look like a bargain to me, unless Lilangas have suddenly shot through the roof. The beauty of an auction is that we shall soon find out.

Other goodies include a sensitively painted nude by the Ugandan Eli Kyeyune and an even better full-length nude by his lesser known brother George (broadly brushed and superbly modelled), a magnificent and huge matatu print (122.5cm by 215.5cm) by Dennis Muraguri, plus a couple of excellent strong woodcut prints, black on buff paper, by the Kenyan John Diang’a.

There is also what is possibly the finest painting I have ever seen by Yony Waite. As I noted a couple of weeks ago, Waite’s work tends to be variable but this watercolour on paper sees her at her very best.

It is of a tangle of woodland — incisive, accurate, beautifully structured, painted with clarity and imbued with an almost surreal sense of the mystical.

With a low estimate of only $650 (and with another woodlands watercolour thrown in), it is one of those works that looks like a bargain and encourages people to attend.

The auction itself will open with the sale of a keynote woodcut print and collage by Peterson Kamwathi from his Constitutional Bull series of 2008. Owned by Robert Devereaux, this blue chip piece, Maximum Reforms, is estimated at $3,300 to $4,500, and it represents a high risk strategy by Circle.

As first on the block it will either create the buzz that will set the tone for a night of high prices or catch a crowd not yet caught up in the swing of things and fail to make its mark.

In fact, the first six lots offered include the Kamwathi, the George Kyeyune and both Lilangas.

So bang, bang, bang, bang! Or not.

Frank Whalley runs Lenga Juu, an arts consultancy based in Nairobi