In 2020, a discreet maintenance shed in Houston was discovered to house more than 1,000 pieces of “priceless” African art with no known provenance. After a lengthy investigation—that ensnared local taxpayers and the county commissioner—the collection was set for auction. However, the sale, scheduled for Thursday, was abruptly canceled after the purported owner of the art filed for bankruptcy.

“Last night Sam Njunuri filed for Chapter 13 Bankruptcy,” attorney Joe Walker said in a statement, as quoted by KPRC 2, the Houston media outlet responsible for uncovering the scandal. 

Related Articles

Rue du Seine, Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Paris, 2013.

Eleven People Face Trial in France for Selling Fake African Artifacts

Africa’s NFT Scene Is Booming – International Attention Could Take It to the Next Level

Walker continued: “This morning Deputy Bivens informed me that as such the sale has been canceled. Of interest in his filing is his statement that he has between 1 and 10 million (dollars) of assets. Filing for bankruptcy to avoid this auction is like jumping into the Tiger cage at the zoo.”

Thursday’s auction was to be overseen by the office of Harris County Precinct 5 Constable Ted Heap.

At the center of the saga is the shed, which investigators found had been transformed with taxpayer money into an art storage facility to the cost of $326,000.

In February 2020, a KPRC 2 crew, tipped off about its mysterious holdings, found a discreet storage container fenced-off, laden with high-end security cameras, surrounded by an electronic gate, and plastered with a “no trespassing sign.” Inside were hundreds of African artifacts, of varying origin, that an expert later described as “exquisite”. The shed was revealed to be owned by Harris County and is located in Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis’ precinct. Surveillance footage obtained by KPRC 2 show Ellis visiting the facility several times in a six-month period between 2019 and 2020. In some videos, he is seen giving groups and individuals private tours of the collection. The facility is closed to the public.

“A lot of money got spent on a building, clearly to make it so that it could be used to store this art collection,” Former Harris County Judge and KPRC 2 Analyst Ed Emmett said in a statement. “The art collection doesn’t belong to the county. The art collection wasn’t even on loan to the county.”

The commissioner’s office provided KPRC 2 with a loan agreement signed in 2018 between the county and the Texas for-profit company African Art Global to display 14 pieces of African art in county buildings. The agreement did not provide an inventory of the hundreds of other works in the shed.

“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,” a spokesperson for the county commissioner told

State records show that, as of 2020, African Art Global had been out of business for a year. KPRC 2 crew members visited the address listed for the company, and found an empty office. More than a dozen defunct companies have been linked to Njunuri, who was ordered by a local court in a separate case to pay Walker’s clients $279,944.

In 2021, local reporters linked the shed to Sam Njunuri, the owner of African Art Global and alleged owner of the collection. A connection was also established between the company and the sister-in-law of Ellis. Two criminal investigations were launched by Harris County District Attorney’s public integrity investigators, during which a Harris County grand jury declined to indict Ellis for his involvement. Njunuri has admitted to owning some of the artworks and has testified under oath that a portion of the collection may have been stolen.

The FBI determined that a federal crime was not committed, however investigators are still seeking paperwork to authenticate the collection’s ownership.

“It has always been my understanding, and still is my belief, that Mr. Njunuri owns all the art in question,” Ellis said in the statement.