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More than 1,000 pieces of African art previously housed at taxpayer expense in a Harris County warehouse under mysterious circumstances are headed to auction next week.

The various wood and metal statues, carvings, masks and other objects that sat in the Harris County Precinct 1 warehouse in southeast Houston for several years are going to the auction block in a sheriff’s sale to satisfy a civil court judgment against the owner, Sam Njunuri, in a real estate-related lawsuit stretching back to July 2017.

Joseph Walker, the attorney for Darlene Jarrett and Sylvia Jones, said his clients have been waiting two years to receive more than $989,000 in damages since a jury concluded they were owed that from Njunuri.

According to the lawsuit, Jarrett and Jones had a housing lease agreement with Njunuri. The two were told they could store their personal items and furniture in the garage of the house while they returned to Arkansas to finish relocating to Texas.

A piece of African art is housed in a Regency Plaza room in Houston on Wednesday, March 27, 2024. (Marie D. De Jesús / Abdelraoufsinno)

Once they returned to the rental home, the lawsuit said, the locks had been changed and most of their belongings were missing. Njunuri told the pair their property was in storage and that his cleaning lady also had taken some of their possessions.

Jarrett was given the woman’s address, where she found a yard sale underway that included some of her belongings, much of which had been ruined from exposure to the rain. The woman also was wearing a pair of Jarrett’s shoes, the lawsuit said.

Jarrett and Jones sued Njunuri, a partner and his real estate company for negligence and theft, accusing them of not following an obligation to keep their belongings secure and for misrepresenting where they could store them. 

The suit asked for damages for what the two lost in the past and “will incur in the future,” as well as legal fees. The jury awarded nearly $690,000 in damages and an additional $200,000 under the state’s Deceptive Trade Practices Act, according to court records. Njunuri also was ordered to pay $25,000 in punitive damages and $75,000 in attorney fees.

By October 2023, Jarrett and Jones had not yet received any payment. Following a motion by their lawyer, State District Judge Rabeea Collier ordered the sheriff’s sale of the artwork.

The African pieces will be sold together with the minimum bid expected to be about $4,400. Another benefit to the sale, Walker said, is that the buyer will walk away with a clean ownership title and bill of sale — something that currently does not exist.

“This isn’t something that is usually in my wheelhouse,” he said. “It’s interesting and certainly unusual. Somebody might show up and get one heck of a deal.”

The artwork was at the center of a public corruption investigation involving Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis, whose office took possession of and stored the objects under curious circumstances in 2018. Ellis was cleared of wrongdoing by a Harris County grand jury in 2021.

Ellis, an African art enthusiast, had approval from Commissioners Court in 2018 to accept 14 pieces of African art from Njunuri to display in public buildings. Precinct 1 staff later accepted more than 1,400 pieces, however, without amending the agreement that expired in 2020. The collection was stored at the warehouse for more than four years at no expense to Njuniri. At least $350,000 was spent by Precinct 1 on transportation costs for the art, fumigation and renovations to the warehouse.

Ellis said in a statement that he was “glad this beautiful art collection will find a home.”

A Houston Chronicle investigation found Njunuri, a Houston real estate agent originally from Kenya, never produced any records proving he owns the works, nor any documents detailing the age, provenance or countries of origin for the pieces.

Hundreds of pieces of African art are housed inside two Regency Plaza rooms on Wednesday, March 27, 2024, in Houston. The artwork was previously stored at taxpayer expense in a Harris County warehouse. (Marie D. De Jesús / Abdelraoufsinno)

Njunuri previously had said he wanted to create a museum or community center in Houston to display the art.

Njunuri and the Harris County Attorney’s office did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday.

Wendy Atterberry, the building manager of Regency Plaza in southwest Houston, said Njunuri began leasing office space there in August 2022.

Atterberry said she remembers when the artwork was moved in because she had never seen anything like it. It took movers nearly four days to place all of the items into two separate rooms, she said. Collectively, the pieces occupy about 3,000 square feet of space and several items barely fit under the 9-foot ceilings.

Atterberry said it has been more than a year since Njunuri has paid for the rental space. Calls and emails to Njunuri, who owes building owner Ridgepoint JR LLC more than $50,000, have gone unanswered and ignored, she said.

Atterberry, who said she found out about the auction a few weeks ago, said she is looking forward to being able to get the office space back so she can renovate it into a conference room and common area.

The artwork, sporting some dust and cobwebs, is stored behind locked doors.

“I don’t know what to expect,” she said. “But I just want to get rid of the artwork.”

The sale will be held on Thursday, April 4, at 10 a.m. inside Regency Plaza at 6464 Savoy Drive.

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McKenna Oxenden is a reporter covering Harris County for the Abdelraoufsinno. She most recently had a yearlong fellowship at the New York Times on its breaking news team. A Baltimore native, she previously...