Home Art collection Robert Devereux explains why he is selling his African art collection

Robert Devereux explains why he is selling his African art collection

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Almost the first words that Robert Devereux says to me are: “I don’t like the word ‘collector’. I don’t like labels. I don’t consider myself a patron either.

And yet he is both, no matter how he describes himself. He has accumulated more than 1,000 works of art, half of them post-war British, the other 500 or so by artists from Africa or the African diaspora. On October 13, Christie’s will distribute 74 of the African works, with at least 20% of the proceeds going to arts and environmental charities including Gasworks, The Africa Centre, the African Arts Trust (£3million beneficiary from an earlier sale of its collection) and the Lamu Environmental Foundation.

“Philanthropy has always been in my family, and giving back was part of how I was raised,” he says. “I have a puritan side that says I was very lucky. All those who have succeeded have relied on others. You don’t do it alone. »

‘Head’ (1992) by William Kentridge

We meet in London, where he spent the morning at the William Kentridge show at the Royal Academy. He is direct, friendly and open. Tall and limber, dressed casually in rather cool jeans and trainers, Devereux looks much younger than his 67 years, with a halo of curly blond hair and a slight beard.

He made his fortune after selling his partnership in the Virgin Group in 1996, where he had run the entertainment division. “It was a lot of money then, but to be honest, it looks gross now!” he says. After that, he presided over Soho House for 10 years and launched an online search business “long before Google; the idea was good but the execution was totally wrong,” he laughs.

His mid-1990s midlife crisis was “boringly predictable.” He wanted to get away from it all and had “always been fascinated by the great arc of the Indian Ocean, from South Africa to the east coast of India. I brought my backpack to Heathrow Airport and decided to catch the next plane to the area. The first flights were to Durban and Mogadishu – I wasn’t quite sure what the situation was in Mogadishu so I flew to Durban and worked up to Mombasa.

“I fell in love with Africa during this trip. I wanted to invest time and money in the venue, and when I go somewhere I always look for the artists and end up buying art.

A rough looking man with a shaggy beard in a blue shirt and a backpack in front of a scrubland

Robert Devereux in his son’s film The Rift’. . .

Two men walking in the distance through rocky land

. . . who follows his journey on foot through Africa

I ask what particularly attracted him to the art of the region. “Part of it was the context – I was there – but I liked the authenticity and the straightforwardness of the art – it was a strong contrast to what was happening in the UK in the 1990s .”

He had already been a collector since his marriage to the British art dealer and entrepreneur Vanessa Branson, who owned a gallery on the road to Portobello in the 1980s. It was then that Devereux bought British art, but also works of the South African Kentridge, whom he greatly admires: “He is as important an artist as there are”, notes Devereux.

His collection is named after the house he bought in 2005 on the island of Lamu in northern Kenya, Sina Jina. “I stopped flying five years ago for environmental reasons,” he says. “I am sometimes a little extreme. . . I was going to sell the whole collection, because I didn’t see the point of not going to Africa. But I realized I couldn’t bear not going so now I allow myself one trip a year. And I decided to keep part of the collection.

I’m curious to know more about his extreme character, and he thinks for a moment. “Well, I walked 5,600 km across Africa, from Mozambique to Djibouti, along the Rift Valley. I was lucky that nothing happened. His son Louis made a documentary, The flaw, about the walk, but it turned into a review of Devereux’s marriage breakdown. “It’s quite difficult for me to watch,” Devereux said. “But Louis made an honest film, and it was quite cathartic for the family.”

Head shaped white beads on wooden planks

‘Oga 1’ by El Anatsui

Although I would have liked to continue on this subject – and he seems willing to do so – I think I should return to the subject of his art. How did he choose the works that will be auctioned at Christie’s? “I decided to focus more on East Africa, so I mainly sell works from South and West Africa.” In the sale are names such as El Anatsui (“Oga 1”, is £60,000-£80,000); Ibrahim El-Salahi (“The Tree”, £20,000 to £30,000); William Kentridge (“The Head”, £50,000-£70,000); and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye (“Editor”, £100,000 to £150,000). “I think I was the first person to buy a work by Lynette, when she was doing a residency at Gasworks in 2007,” he says. Part of the proceeds from the sale, which could raise over £2million, will go to Gasworks. “I need to replenish the war chest, so that I can continue to support organizations that I believe in,” says Devereux.

head of a person

‘Editor’ (2007) by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye

“The Tree” (2003) by Ibrahim El-Salahi

I wonder what the future holds for the rest of the collection. Much to his disappointment, a project has gone off the rails: building what he calls a shed around Nairobi’s Circle commercial art gallery, in which he has a stake. This would have served as an exhibition space for his collection. “Unfortunately, the owner of the land has decided to sell the site,” explains Devereux. “The idea is to build my shed somewhere else, until I find a suitable place for collection. Eventually, I hope that everything will go to an institution, ideally in Nairobi.

Photo of a man dressed in leopard print sitting in a leopard print chair holding a bouquet of sunflowers.  On the floor and on the wall are luminous fabrics

‘The Chef: The One Who Sold Africa To The Settlers’ (The Chef Who Sold Africa To The Settlers) (1997) by Samuel Fosso © Christie’s Images

And as he leaves, returning to the Kentridge show, he adds, “I’m a romantic. I buy art because I like it, but also because the most important thing is to support artists and the institutions that support them.

The ‘A Place with No Name: Works from the Sina Jina Collection’ sale is at Christie’s London on October 13 christies.com