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 both, however he describes himself. He has amassed more than 1,000 works of art, half of them by post-war British artists and 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 per cent of proceeds going to arts and environmental charities including Gasworks, The Africa Centre, the African Arts Trust (a £3m beneficiary of a previous sale of his collection). ) and the Lamu Environmental Foundation.
“Philanthropy has always been part of my family, and giving back was part of my upbringing,” he says. “I have a puritanical streak that says I’ve been very lucky. Anyone who has been successful has relied on others. You can’t do it alone.”
We meet in London where he spent the morning at the William Kentridge Show at the Royal Academy. He is direct, friendly and accommodating. Tall and lithe, dressed casually in jeans and rather cool sneakers, Devereux looks much younger than his 67 years, with a halo of curly blonde hair and a light beard.
He made his fortune after selling his stake in Virgin Group, where he ran the entertainment division, in 1996. “It was a lot of money back then, but to be honest it looks confusing now!” he says. He then served as chairman of Soho House for 10 years and founded an online search company “long before Google; The idea was right, but the implementation was completely wrong,” he laughs.
His mid-life crisis in the mid-1990s was “boringly predictable”. He wanted to get away and was “always fascinated by the great arc of the Indian Ocean from South Africa to the east coast of India. I took my backpack to Heathrow Airport and decided to hop on the next plane to the area. The first flights were to Durban and Mogadishu – I wasn’t exactly sure about the situation in Mogadishu so I flew to Durban and worked my way to Mombasa.
“It was on this trip that I fell in love with Africa. I wanted to invest time and money in the place and when I go somewhere I always look up the artists and end up buying artworks.”
I ask what particularly appealed to him about the art of the region. “Part of it was the context – I was there – but I liked the authenticity and directness of the art – it was a stark contrast to what was going on in the UK in the 1990s.”
He has been a collector since his marriage to British art dealer and entrepreneur Vanessa Branson, who had a gallery on Portobello Road in the 1980s. At that time, Devereux bought British art, but also works by the South African Kentridge, whom he greatly admires: “He is just as important an artist as there is,” Devereux states.
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. “Sometimes I’m a bit extreme. . . I wanted to sell the whole collection because I saw no point in not going to Africa. But I realized I couldn’t bear not to go there, so now I allow myself a trip a year. And I decided to keep part of the collection.”
I’m curious to know more about how extreme he is and he thinks for a moment. “Well, I ran 5,600 km across Africa, from Mozambique to Djibouti, along the Rift Valley. I wasn’t scared at the time, but looking back I was lucky nothing happened.” His son Louis made a documentary The ditch, about the walk, but it turned into an investigation into the failure of Devereux’s marriage. “It’s pretty hard for me to watch,” says Devereux. “But Louis made an honest film, and it was quite cathartic for the family.”
Although I would have liked to pursue this subject further – and he seems willing to do so – I think I should return to the subject of his art. How did he choose the works to be auctioned at Christie’s? “I’ve decided to focus more on East Africa, so I mainly sell work from South and West Africa.” On offer are names like El Anatsui (“Oga 1”, est £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 (“Erector“, £100,000 to £150,000). “I think I was the first person to purchase work from Lynette while she was in residency at Gasworks in 2007,” he says. Part of the proceeds from the sale, which could fetch well over £2million, will go to Gasworks. “I need to fill the war chest so I can continue to support organizations that I believe in,” says Devereux.
I wonder what the future holds for the rest of the collection. To his disappointment, a project has failed: building a shed around Nairobi’s Circle commercial art gallery, which he is involved with. This would have served as an exhibition space for his collection. “Unfortunately, the property owner decided to sell the site,” says Devereux. “The idea is to move my shed somewhere else until I find a suitable place for the collection. In the end I hope everything goes to an institution, ideally Nairobi.”
And as he leaves to return to the Kentridge show, he adds: “I’m 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 auction “A Place with No Name: Works from the Sina Jina Collection” will take place on October 13th at Christie’s London. christies.com