41ºF

‘Priceless’ African art without paperwork stored in Harris County-owned maintenance shed

HOUSTON – A seemingly unimportant Harris County maintenance shed contains rows and rows of exquisite African art that one expert described as “priceless.” The shed belongs to the county and is located in Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis’ precinct.

But who does the artwork belong to?

Inside the shed

From the outside, it is a basic shed with metal walls. But the shed is surrounded by fencing, high-end security cameras, recently-added asphalt and a new electronic gate. There is also a “no trespassing” sign at the entrance.

Channel 2 Investigates received a tip about the shed last year and has been working to uncover the truth since. In late January, a crew arrived at the building and asked for a tour.

Inside the Harris County maintenance shed that is paid for by taxpayers, there are hundreds of pieces of art, rich in color and culture, but blocked from public view.

“We currently are warehousing an African art collection that we have an agreement with that was approved by Commissioners Court, a couple of years ago,” Ellis’ spokesperson Maureen Haver told KPRC 2 when the crew arrived at the shed.

Ellis’ staff later sent a document signed in January 2018. It’s an agreement between the county and a private company to display 14 pieces of African Art in county buildings. There are a few pieces displayed at the Tom Bass Community Center.

But what about the hundreds of other pieces in the shed? There’s no paperwork or even a mention of them in the agreement.

Former Harris County Judge and current KPRC 2 political analyst, Ed Emmett signed the agreement back in 2018. He told KPRC 2 the agreement did not reflect what was going on in the shed.

"A lot of money got spent on a building, clearly to make it so that it could be used to store this art collection," said Emmett. "The art collection doesn't belong to the county. The art collection wasn't even on loan to the county."

Ellis and his staff did not provide receipts detailing how much money was spent to create this storage space so it is unclear if taxpayer money was spent to buy any of the art. There was also no inventory provided of the artwork to prove it is being properly managed. It also is unknown if the vast collection of priceless artwork is properly insured.

Ownership?

The key question from Emmett: "Who owns this artwork?"

Ellis’ team says all of the artwork is owned by a company called African Art Global, a for-profit company that has been out of business for more than a year, according to state records.

“Why would Harris County spend money to create a storage facility for art that belongs to somebody else?” Emmett wondered.

The company that supposedly owns a vast collection of African art is out of business.
The company that supposedly owns a vast collection of African art is out of business. (KPRC)

How valuable is the artwork?

The African Art collection is very valuable, according to Prairie View A&M University professor and Director of Art, Clarence Talley, Ph.D.

When Talley was shown a video from inside the shed, he was impressed at a collection so large and rare.

“Yes, I believe it’s priceless,” said Talley. “It’s not tourist art, it’s authentic African art, no doubt about that.”

The first time KPRC 2 Investigative reporter Mario Diaz asked Ellis about the huge collection, he said nothing and ducked into an office.

KPRC 2 asked Ellis a second time about the artwork and what message he had to Harris County taxpayers. He remained silent and told Diaz to call his office.

After KPRC 2 came knocking, Ellis drew up a brand new agreement focused on all the artwork. He presented it on Tuesday to his fellow commissioners at a meeting. However, before anything happens, Ellis admitted he will need to first work with the county attorney and purchasing department to get everything inventoried.

On Thursday at 6 pm, Channel 2 Investigates will focus on the private company at the center of this deal, African Art Global, and its owner.

KPRC 2 editor Bill Carruthers, photographers John Barone, Jon Hill and David Weed, producer Andrea Slaydon and executive producer Bryan Luhn contributed to this report.