Pioneering 'champagne' art auction in East Africa, but high set-up costs threaten profits

Many art houses throughout the continent face huge challenges, but a few are taking them head on--and having fun at it.

SIPPING champagne before bidding at auction might not be the best way to keep a clear head…but the bubbly liquid certainly calms the nerves and gives a sparkle to any event.

Add a heavily discounted hotel room rate and five-star cuisine, plus the presence of a high profile auctioneer flown in specially to command the saleroom and you have a recipe for success.

That is the theory behind a champagne auction planned for Nairobi in two months’ time, when a mixture of classic and new works by East African artists goes under the hammer.

It is also a concept that brings a particularly fun-loving African touch to this latest venture by the Kenyan capital’s “Circle Art Agency”. Circle pioneered auctions aimed at the secondary market in East Africa, building on the knowledge and experience shared by sale-rooms in Nigeria and South Africa, and an Egyptian arts centre.

“Without these people we just couldn’t make it work,” said Danda Jaroljmek, a Circle director. “It is happening in Nairobi but in a real sense we feel we have the whole of Africa behind us.”

Circle’s trials in developing an auction business are typical of the challenges facing many art houses throughout the continent.

The agency’s first auction, last February, saw drawings and paintings valued at around $215,000 go under the hammer, bringing them a welcome $64,500 commission — 15% from the buyers and a matching 15% from the sellers.

Now Circle is upping the ante by aiming for total sales of $235,000 with a commission to them of slightly over $70,000 - a useful profit for what might seem just an evening’s work.

Yet far more lies behind the figures. That profit is eaten into — if not consumed almost entirely — by the costs of setting up the show.

A hall has to be hired, in this case at the plush Villa Rosa hotel, one of the Kempinski chain, and with the auction itself starting on a Monday evening, there are three days of viewing for potential buyers; on Saturday, Sunday and daytime Monday. Some have to be brought in, schmoozed and shown the rabbits in the hat.

Then there is the catalogue to produce. It has to be high end, full colour and carefully supervised to ensure each biography is accurate and each picture does justice to the original.

The star auctioneer has to be flown in — in this case from the UK —  fed, watered and put in a room somewhere ready for the show. In this case it is one Dendy Easton, formerly of Sotheby’s, Bonhams and the popular British TV series The Antiques Roadshow. He ran the last auction for Circle and proved to be a big hit.

And of course, most time-consuming of all, works heading for the block have to be sourced, collected, insured, stored and distributed afterwards, prices agreed and where necessary, artistic egos soothed.

On top of that, advertising has to be produced and the word put out via mailing lists and influential friends.

Buyers among the High Net Worth (HNW) business people Circle is keen to attract, generally know where they will be on any particular day at least one year in advance and the agency has to ensure their auction date is squeezed onto the diary.

Some of these HNW individuals will be flying for the weekend into Nairobi, where many international companies have offices, hoping perhaps to combine the sale with business commitments.

The biggest headache of all is ensuring the quality of the sale, sourcing and offering exemplary pictures and sculpture that will attract serious collectors, while not deterring those who fancy dipping a toe in the market because they feel they should have a little art on the wall.

“Our fear is that the first auction was carried through by the novelty of it… now we have to ensure we maintain the standard by selling the very best examples of work by particular artists — that’s the tricky one,” said Jaroljmek.

Auctions attract buyers with the unstated promise of a bargain. With no fixed price, other than the reserve— the agreed bottom limit for which a work will sell — there is a sense that you could get lucky on the night, maybe by spotting something others have missed and by shrewd bidding secure a bargain.

Sellers on the other hand, like the auctioneers themselves, pray that macho bidding wars — fuelled by pride, free drink and reduced room rates — will result in a higher than expected price for their work.

The results remain to be seen.

Certainly Jaroljmek is doing her best to bring in the buyers with what promises to be an exciting line-up of Modern and Contemporary paintings, drawings and sculpture; Modern being defined as 1950s onwards — those known as the First Generation of African artists — while Contemporary is anything produced after the year 2000.

Of 50 lots to be sold in around an hour and a half, the star of the night is being touted as a painting by the late Ugandan Geoffrey Mukasa, estimated at around $21,000 while at the other end of the scale are limited edition prints by the sought-after Kenyan Joseph Opiyo and the Tanzanian Robino Ntila. They are expected to be knocked down for approximately $235 apiece.

—Frank Whalley runs Lenga Juu, a fine arts consultancy based in Nairobi, Kenya.

(First artwork by George Lilanga, second by Geoffrey Mukasa)

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