Howard Croft column: Antiques Roadshow was head-turning experience

The husband and wife African head carvings taken for valuation to the Antiques Roadshow.
The husband and wife African head carvings taken for valuation to the Antiques Roadshow.

When I lived in Africa I came across a wood carver/sculptor called Job Kekana who had started working in wood when he was a young boy herding his father’s goats. His work, some of which I had seen in the house of a friend, is unusual in that the busts he produced resembled actual people, unlike the rather stylised figures widely produced by African carvers for tourists, usually out of soap stone.

A meeting was arranged with him, with some difficulty as he was rather reclusive in his old age and very committed to consuming palm wine, a disgusting drink high in alcohol content.

I wanted him to make me a head, but he wanted a more detailed brief – so I asked him to portray for me “the sorrow of Africa”.

I couldn’t think of what else to say (I had never before commissioned any creative work), but he seemed happy with that and told me to come back in a month.

When I returned he presented me with of the head of a man, life-size, wearing an expression of great sadness and beautifully carved, and I handed over the agreed price of one hundred dollars, enough for a great quantity of palm wine.

I was so impressed by what he had done I immediately issued another commission: “Now make the wife from the same wood”. I had to wait two months for her as Job had already made plans to spend his hundred dollars and we needed to allow for recovery from the effects of that.

I was not disappointed. In fact, I was so delighted that I paid him another hundred dollars plus a bonus, not the kind of generous behaviour generally associated with me as my family members will readily confirm.

All this happened in 1975. I returned to England in 1979 and in 1980 a friend and former African colleague, Sam Mpofu, arrived in London and presented me with another Kekana piece.

This was a two-header, mother and child and the gift was in acknowledgement of a debt he felt he owed me and greatly exaggerated in respect of help I had given him with his career.

Wind forward almost 40 years when the Antiques Roadshow comes to town – well, to Castle Howard (no relation). Now, my “heads” are by no means antiques, but they are very beautiful, the work of a skilled artist and possibly of interest to the luvvies from the BBC, so off we went.

I was careful to duck behind a tree whenever Fiona Bruce came anywhere near; I was wearing my new blazer and if she had caught sight of me in that she would have become uncontrollable, saucy parcel of goods that she is. I was not interested in the current value of my possessions, of course (“I shall never sell them”, “they will stay in the family”, “great sentimental value only”), but in learning more about them.

It turns out that the work of Job Kekana is well-known and examples are to be found in the parliament building in Harare, Zimbabwe and there is even a piece, I was told, in the House of Commons. I shall be investigating this latter claim when I am due to visit the Commons in October as a guest of our MP, Kevin Hollinrake.

If you have a vulgar interest in the value, here goes ...

The husband and wife pair £1,500 (“possibly more at the right auction”), Madonna and Child £3-500, because “not so fine”. I arranged my features, I don’t know with what degree of success, into an expression of accommodating gratitude and surprise when I heard this news. I had of course been hoping for a much higher figure, one that would have put me in a position, once I had flogged the stuff, to buy a boat and hire a mooring in the splendid new marina planned for Bridlington.

Both Job Kekana and my friend Sam Mpofu have been dead for some time now and my “heads” are a lovely reminder of an interesting time and interesting people long ago, a time my grandchildren would probably refer to as “the olden days”. I have particular fond memories of Sam with whom I often went to the races.

We didn’t win enough to buy boats, but we did very well out of backing an outsider called The Black Bishop, named after Bishop Muzorewa, a cleric with political ambitions at that time. Twenty-to-one if memory serves.