African Art Auction Stopped After Owner Declares Bankruptcy

April 8, 2024

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By 

Elle Yap

The auction of a controversial collection of African art was canceled after its alleged owner, real estate investor Sam Njunuri, declared bankruptcy. 

Njunuri filed Chapter 13 bankruptcy on the day of the auction itself. This prevented the sale of his assets while he proposed a repayment plan to his creditors within three to five years. He has to submit a plan within 14 days or the court dismisses his filing. 

His bankruptcy filing claims that he has somewhere between $1-10 million in assets, and a similar amount of debt from 50 creditors. 

An exhibit of African art in a museum. Photo by Gary Todd. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
An exhibit of African art in a museum. Photo by Gary Todd. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The government canceled the auction a few hours before it was set to occur. Reportedly, a group of 30 people were already present at the auction area, including a representative from fine arts dealer Sotheby’s. 

The collection contained over 1,400 pieces of art. It contained a variety of pieces, including bronze, clay and wooden sculptures. Njunuri bought the collection through his company African Art Global, which closed down in 2020. 

Renter’s Controversy

The court ordered the sale after Njunuri lost a 2017 case against former renters Darlene Jarrett and Sylvia Jones. Jarrett and Jones had rented a property from Njunuri and moved their belongings there around two weeks before their lease agreement was to begin. However, when they moved in, the two found out that Njunuri had sold off much of their belongings. 

A property auction. Photo by advokatsmart.no. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
A property auction. Photo by advokatsmart.no. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The court ordered Sam Njunuri to pay $990,000 in damages. They included the African art collection in his assets to be sold to cover the settlement.

“The night before, Mr. Njunuri went ahead and filed for bankruptcy, which was obviously a blatant attempt to avoid the sale,” Joe Walker, Jarrett and Jones’ attorney, said to the press. “Doing something like that is like going to the zoo and jumping into the tiger cage. It’s not something you want to do lightly and may not bode very well for him.”

The African art collection was the center of controversy in 2021 after Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis stored the pieces in a Houston warehouse using hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayer money. 

A courthouse in Harris County. Photo by Brent Moore. Source: Flickr.
A courthouse in Harris County. Photo by Brent Moore. Source: Flickr.

Reportedly, Ellis had an agreement with Njunuri’s African Art Global to store 14 pieces from the collection. These pieces would be displayed at public county buildings in the future. But Ellis ended up storing the 1,400 pieces of art in a county shed, spending $326,000 to retrofit the building for this purpose. 

During its time in storage, CCTV footage caught Sam Njunuri giving private tours for the collection. It occured during a six-month period between 2019 and 2020, despite of the property being marked inaccessible to the public. 

“A lot of money got spent on a building, clearly to make it so that it could be used to store this art collection,” former judge Ed Emmett said. “The art collection doesn’t belong to the county. The art collection wasn’t even on loan to the county.”

Allegedly, Ellis’ sister-in-law had business ties with Njunuri beforehand. A criminal investigation over Ellis’ conduct ensued. In the end, a grand jury in the county declined to press charges over the case. 

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