Robert Devereux on why he’s selling his collection of African art
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Almost the first words Robert Devereux says to me are: “I don’t like the word ‘collector’. I don’t like labels. I don’t call myself a patron either.”
And yet he is very much both, however he describes himself. He has accumulated more than 1,000 works of art, half of them postwar British, the other 500 or so by artists from Africa or the African diaspora. On October 13, Christie’s will disperse 74 of the African works, with at least 20 per cent of the proceeds going to arts and environmental charities including Gasworks, The Africa Centre, the African Arts Trust (£3mn beneficiary of an earlier sale of his collection) and the Lamu Environmental Foundation.
“Philanthropy has always been in my family, and giving back was part of the way I was brought up,” he says. “I have a puritan streak which says I’ve been very lucky. Everyone who has been successful has relied on others. You don’t do it on your own.”
We meet in London, where he has been spending the morning at the William Kentridge show at the Royal Academy. He is direct, friendly and forthcoming. Tall and lithe, dressed casually in jeans and rather cool trainers, Devereux looks way 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 headed the entertainment division. “It was a lot of money at the time, but to be honest, it looks piffling now!” he says. After that, he chaired Soho House for 10 years and started an online search business “long before Google; the idea was right but the execution was totally wrong”, he laughs.
His midlife crisis in the mid-1990s was “boringly predictable”. He wanted to get away and had “always been fascinated by the great arc of the Indian Ocean from South Africa to the east coast of India. I took my rucksack to Heathrow airport and decided to get on 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 went to Durban and worked my way up to Mombasa.
“I fell in love with Africa during that trip. I wanted to invest time and money in the place, and when I go somewhere I always seek out the artists and end up buying works of art.”
I ask what particularly attracted him to the art of the region. “Partly it was the context — I was there — but I liked the authenticity and directness of the art — it was a strong contrast to what was going on in the UK in the 1990s.”
He had already been a collector, dating from his marriage to the British art dealer and entrepreneur Vanessa Branson, who had a gallery on the Portobello Road in the 1980s. This was when Devereux bought British art, but also works by the South African Kentridge, whom he greatly admires: “He is as important an artist as there is,” Devereux notes.
His collection bears the name of the house he bought in 2005 on the island of Lamu in northern Kenya, Sina Jina. “I gave up flying five years ago for environmental reasons,” he says. “I am a bit extreme sometimes . . . I was going to sell the whole collection, as I couldn’t see the point if I couldn’t go to Africa. But I realised I couldn’t bear not going there so now I allow myself one trip a year. And I decided to keep some of the collection.”
I am curious to know more about his being extreme, and he thinks for a moment. “Well, I walked 5,600km across Africa, from Mozambique to Djibouti, along the Rift Valley. I didn’t feel any trepidation at the time, but with hindsight I was lucky that nothing happened.” His son Louis made a documentary, The Rift, about the walk but it turned into an examination of the breakdown of Devereux’s marriage. “It is quite hard for me to watch,” says Devereux. “But Louis made an honest film, and it has been quite cathartic for the family.”
While I would have liked to continue this topic — and he seems willing to do so — I feel I should return to the subject of his art. How did he choose the works that are to be auctioned at Christie’s? “I decided to focus more on east Africa, so I am mainly selling works from south and west Africa.” In the sale are names such as El Anatsui (“Oga 1”, est £60,000-£80,000); Ibrahim El-Salahi (“The Tree”, £20,000-£30,000); William Kentridge (“The Head”, £50,000-£70,000); and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye (“Erector”, £100,000-£150,000). “I think I was the first person to buy a work by Lynette, while she was doing a residency at Gasworks in 2007,” he says. Some of the proceeds of the sale, which could make well over £2mn, will go to Gasworks. “I need to replenish the war chest, so I can go on supporting organisations which I believe in,” says Devereux.
I wonder what the future of the rest of the collection is. To his disappointment, one project has been derailed: building what he calls a shed around the Nairobi commercial art gallery Circle, in which he has a share. This would have served as an exhibition space for his collection. “Unfortunately, the owner of the land has decided to sell the site,” says Devereux. “The idea is to build my shed somewhere else, until I find a suitable place for the collection. Ultimately, I hope that it will all go to an institution, ideally in Nairobi.”
And as he leaves, to return to the Kentridge show, he adds: “I am a romantic. I buy art because I love 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