Recent developments have left the public perplexed about the private African art collection discovered in an old Harris County maintenance shed. Until now, the KPRC 2 Investigates investigation had shrouded the collection, discovered in February 2020, in mystery.
Questions about the arts’ ownership as well as the use of taxpayer money to store it to the tune of $326,000 had also remained unresolved. Commissioner Rodney Ellis, who oversaw the safekeeping of this vast collection, was evasive in the face of questioning, refusing to answer the questions presented during the investigation. Adding to this was the lack of proper documentation by the claimed owner, Sam Njunuri.
In 2020, Maureen Haver, spokesperson for Commisioner Rodney Ellis, reported that Njunuri’s refusal to cooperate put Harris County in a difficult situation. The county found itself with a 5,000-square-foot warehouse full of 1,267 artworks, many of which were over 6 feet tall. Neither returning the artworks to their owners nor putting them to public use was possible. As a result, the county attorney’s office instructed Precinct 1 to secure the site and prevent any movement of the pieces. Another 140 pieces remain on display in Precinct 1 facilities. The discovery of links between Njunuri’s business and Commissioner Ellis’ sister-in-law further raised suspicions.
A criminal inquiry was launched In response to KPRC 2 Investigates’ reports, a criminal inquiry was launched. In October 2021, a Harris County grand jury decided not to indict Commissioner Ellis for unlawful possession of the art. Nonetheless, the essential question remains: Who genuinely owns this extraordinary collection of African art?
Recent developments have revealed a complicated legal dispute over the collection. Attorney Joseph Walker filed a lawsuit against Njunuri on behalf of his client Darlene Jarrett, accusing Njunuri of relocating the artworks to a private corporate office building in the city’s southwest. Njunuri lost the case, placing him in debt to Jarrett in the amount of $1 million. Walker plans to sell the artwork at a public auction in the following months to pay off the debt.
Njunuri revealed, during sworn testimony, that he was not the sole owner of the work. During the case, Walker mentioned that Njunuri had claimed there was another owner. An affidavit listed 185 pieces of art, supporting this. This new information has complicated the case further, creating doubts about the true origins and ownership of the collection.
During the case, Walker mentioned that Njunuri had claimed there was another owner. This was supported by an affidavit that listed 185 pieces of art. This new information has complicated the case further, creating doubts about the true origins and ownership of the collection.
The civil litigation legal documents revealed that Njunuri acknowledged that someone may have stolen a part of the artwork. This new information added to the intrigue surrounding the collection’s origins and legitimacy.
KPRC 2’s political commentator and former county judge Ed Emmett expressed surprise at the emerging events, calling the situation an “extremely bizarre story.” The initial approval only covered loaning 14 pieces of art to county buildings, but someone had stored almost 1,000 pieces in an underground shed.
Emmett called for a new investigation, urging authorities to probe deeper into the case in light of Njunuri’s shocking findings. Walker stated that he intends to involve law enforcement officials during the auction to guarantee transparency. He also noted that the officials would be able to answer any remaining issues about the sale.
Calls for investigation of the African art collection’s origins, ownership, and authenticity have intensified as legal battles continue.