In 2005, Vinoda Basnayake, a then law student, helped with promoting a Kanye West performance at Club2K9 in Washington, DC. This was when West had one single, “Through The Wire,” but Basnayake said even then he understood how gifted he was.

“I just think he’s so talented,” says Basnayake. “As a music producer and as an artist in every sense of the word, he’s just incredible.”

West went on to become what he would become, and Basnayake, a lawyer who represents foreign governments by day and runs a hospitality fund at night—he co-owns popular venues in DC including Heist, Morris American Bar, Sheppard, and Casta’s—would become a big Kanye West fan. But he, like most people, had no idea that Kanye was an award-winning teenage artist until he happened to come across an episode of PBS’s Antiques Roadshow almost a year ago.

Vinoda Basnayake Kanye West Art Collector
Vinoda Basnayake sitting next to Kanye West's art from high school. Photo by Andrew Cajas.

Basnayake says the show just happened to be on in the background and he noticed some incredible art so he turned the volume up only to realize that Kanye West was the artist. Basnayake was shocked, but immediately started to think about how he could acquire it. He searched for the gentleman on the show, who was married to Donda West’s first cousin. When Kanye’s mother died in 2007 this cousin received it as part of her estate. It took Basnayake a year of persistence, but at the top of this year he finally acquired the collection of art, which consisted of four pieces that the appraiser on Antiques Roadshow valued at between $16,000 and $23,000. Here, Basnayake talks about his journey to purchase the pieces, what he plans on doing with them, and if he’s heard from Kanye. 

Why were you interested in purchasing the art?
I think he’s a musical genius, and I was shocked by the art because it was sort of like, this guy’s brilliant, and it’s regardless of the medium of the art. He’s just so talented. I was super impressed. I’ve always been really interested in the origin of artists, and where the art comes from, and all that. It’s not part of Kanye West’s narrative, the fact that he was this award-winning child savant at art. Everyone knows that he’s brilliant when it comes to music, and he’s a generational talent as a producer, but the fact that he had won all these art competitions as a kid, the fact that he had traveled internationally and studied art. It was a very compelling story, and so I basically searched far and wide to get the contact information of the person who was on the show, who happened to be his mom’s cousin’s husband.

What happened after you contacted them?
I finally got in touch with him. I basically said, “I live in Washington, DC and I collect modern art, and I’m a big fan of Kanye West’s art as a musician, and I was really taken by the pieces you had on the show. Would you be interested in selling?” He basically didn’t get back to me for a couple of months. He got back to me a couple months later, and he said, “We’d consider it,” but it wasn’t necessarily something he was thinking about doing. Months went by and I kept kind of pursuing him and saying, “If you ever change your mind, I have a genuine interest in these pieces. I am involved in the arts in many different ways. I really feel like I’d be a good home for it, et cetera.” Then the second week of January, he contacted me, and he said, “I think we’re ready to sell.” So we did the transaction.

Did you go and pick it up?
Yeah. I’m in DC and I was 100 percent too nervous to have the pieces shipped. So I flew to them in Los Angeles and picked up four different pieces. And they were all different mediums, which was cool.

I thought there were much more than what they presented on the show.
They said that they had a portfolio, which I was willing to buy, but they said a lot of what they had in that portfolio was sketchbook art and they don’t know where that is. To my understanding, it wasn’t actual pieces. It was more like a sketchbook of his doodles, and drawings, and things like that.

There’s actually a program that I have that came with the art that was from his art show in 1995, and it lists all the awards that he has or all the awards that his art had won, and it’s a really impressive list. Then as an aside, it says, “He’s going to go to the American Academy of Art where he’s going to focus on his art and also his other interests in music production.” I think it’s kind of cool.

I know you can’t say how much you spent on it, but did you think the appraisal on the show was too low? 
I think art is very subjective, right? Something is worth what the market’s willing to pay. There’s artists out there who are just as talented as another artist. One artist’s work could be millions of dollars, and the other’s could be thousands of dollars. Art is really subjective. It’s hard to say whether appraisals ever fit what the art is worth because art is so subjective. I think Kanye, as I said, is an intergenerational talent. I think that he’s going to be remembered as one of the best producers of our times. I think he’s a genius, and to have an early piece of his art, even of a different medium, to me, is very hard to put a price tag on, which is why I really wanted to acquire it. I mean that’s a really long-winded way of saying I think the value of his art is only going to increase because he’s just so talented.

It’s hard to say, right? But I was really interested in it because I genuinely love artists’ origin stories. That’s how I started my career. I found artists that I thought were talented that were not mainstream, and then I book them for shows. I did that with Jay Sean, the musician. He was a UK med student when I connected with him, and then we brought him to the US, and within six months he had “Down,” and it was the No. 1 track in America. I was his tour manager for the first year because literally he didn’t have even one track on American radio, and I was like, “This guy’s got mad skills. I think he’s going to blow up.” 

I did the same with Russell Peters, the comedian. He had a YouTube clip that was going viral. I hit him up, and I was like, “Hey, I know you’re big in Canada. I would love to be the first promoter who brings you to the US. I think you could kill it here.” And he killed it here. Within a year, he was one of the highest-grossing comedians in America. With this art it was really interesting because it’s where his artistic origin was, and that’s what I’m super interested in. Obviously, I wasn’t there to capture his artistic origin early, but that’s the type of thing that I’m really attracted to.

You kind of lucked out with timing, since no one paid it a lot of attention when the show first aired.
I honestly think it would have gotten much more press, even in March, had it not been the first month of the pandemic. And then I want to say a week after I picked it up, Kim Kardashian posted North’s artwork and on her Instagram she posted a throwback to Kanye’s art and it was literally the four pieces that I own. 

Have either Kim or Kanye reached out? 
No. I’ve gotten a ton of outreach, a ton of outreach from people who are like, “Can I connect you to Kim or Kanye?” But I feel like I’m kind of always skeptical of brokers. You know what I mean? Because it’s sort of like, “Oh, I know Kanye. Do you want me to connect you? I’m just going to take 10 percent.” You just never know. I’ve gotten a ton of those, a ton of those inflows, but I haven’t gotten directly contacted by either of them. Like I said, I’m an admirer of the art. I’m an admirer of very, very talented artists, and if Kanye wants the pieces, he has every right to have them.

Why do you think they sold it to you? Did they say other people were trying to purchase it?
Yeah, he said a couple people had reached out. He actually wrote me a really nice note where he was like, “A bunch of people reached out, but you seemed like the most sincere and the most genuine, so I’ve decided to go with you.” It was very nice.

I know you can’t talk about price, but was there a limit to what you would have spent on it? Did you have a budget? 
I mean now that I bought it, I can say that I think we ended up at a price that was fair, so I don’t know. I really don’t know. There’s definitely a price that I couldn’t afford. You know what I mean?

Are they hanging up in your place? Have you put them in frames?
The day that I got them I took them to get museum-framed so they can be protected, because when I picked them up, they were literally in an old, leather portfolio, which was almost frightening. I just got them back. I was going to put them up in my house. I have some really cool art in my house, but now I’m like, “I think I need to figure out whether that’s what I’m going to do.” But I literally just got them back.

OK. You have the pieces now. What are you going to do with them?
I mean, it’s funny because if Kim Kardashian hadn’t posted them, I don’t know if it would have just been some… I think people buy art because it brings them joy, and they appreciate the creator and that whole process, right? That’s the main reason I bought it in the first place. It’s because I’m such an admirer of Kanye’s talent. Now that it’s gotten this attention, a couple of museums have reached out to me about loaning the pieces, which is interesting.

How do you feel about that?
I’m open to it. I’m open. I feel like he’s a real talent and his art and sort of the origins of his talent should be in the public space for people to see. So I’m open to it. I wasn’t anticipating this much attention coming to the art.

What other artists do you collect? 
I have a couple of Justin Bua originals. One of my favorite art stories of all time is my Justin Bua story, because basically what happened is Justin Bua’s most famous piece is the DJ, which is a poster that everyone used to have in their college dorm. I always had the DJ poster in my college dorm because I was throwing parties in college, which is how I got into promotions and stuff. So the DJ poster resonated with me. Then completely randomly when I bought my new house, I was looking for art, and a friend of mine purchased a couple of pieces from Justin Bua and I didn’t know that the poster I had in my college dorm was by him. So my friend connected me with him and I purchased a couple pieces. 

Yeah, it was really sweet. He did a post. He actually then took the painting that he did of the portrait of my cat, and made it a poster, and sold it on his website, which is cool because now people have my cat on their walls. I have a couple of Mr. Brainwash originals. I have a Murakami. I know that Kanye collects Murakami as well. In my house, I have an elevator that’s a mural done by Amelia ST and Randi Kontner (Randmade), who’s an up-and-coming artist. 

What would happen if Kanye said, “I’d like to buy it from you?”
This started because I am a huge admirer of Kanye as an artist. I’ve always been on the promotion, management side of a bunch of artists, so I’m an artist-first kind of person. If he wants them back, it’s his art. He has a right to have his art. I’m happy to have that conversation.

But you wouldn’t just give them to him, right?
Yeah. I mean, yeah. I mean, there’s probably a universe in which we could figure something out. I’m sure we could figure something out.