A long-lost Nigerian masterpiece broke an African record at auction on Wednesday, February 28.
Ben Enwonwu’s painting “Tutu,” lost for 40 years, sold for GBP 1.2 million at Bonhams International Auction House in London, setting a new record in Nigerian art.
The event generated such interest that, in a world first, Bonhams live-streamed the auction to African audiences, hoping to engage eager bidders interested in bringing the painting back to the continent.
Initially expected to sell for between GBP 200,000 and 300,000, the painting sold for four times the estimate.
Bonham modern art director Giles Peppiatt called the portrait a Nigerian “national icon,” adding that it was “of huge cultural significance.” Following the brutal civil war between federal forces and Biafran separatists in the late 1960s, “Tutu” became a symbol of reconciliation.
“Tutu” draws natural comparisons with the Da Vinci classic, each featuring a three-quarter profile of a young woman captured with an enigmatic expression. The woman behind Enwonwu’s iconic 1974 portrait is of Adetutu “Tutu” Ademiluyi, the princess of Ife in south-western Nigeria. She appears in traditional attire, gazing past the viewers outside the frame.
The painting’s cultural mystique grew over the course of its mysterious decades-long year disappearance. Last seen in 1975 at the Italian Embassy in Nigeria, “Tutu” reappeared late last year in a London apartment building.
Booker Prize-winning Nigerian poet and novelist Ben Okri likened the painting’s rediscovery to a “rare archaeological find,” declaring it the “most significant discovery in contemporary African art in over 50 years.”
“It is a cause for celebration, a potentially transforming moment in the world of art.”
Reflecting on the Enwonwu’s significance as a painter, Okri remarked, “He wasn’t just painting the girl, he was painting the whole tradition. It’s a symbol of hope and regeneration to Nigeria, it’s a symbol of the phoenix rising.”
Ben Enwonwu is considered to be the father of Nigerian modernism and the nation’s most significant painter. He trained at Goldsmiths College, Oxford University, and the Slade art school in England during the 1940s.
Enwonwu painted not only African royalty, but also British royalty: he was commissioned to do a bronze sculpture of Queen Elizabeth II for her visit in 1956. He died in 1994 without knowing the whereabouts of “Tutu.”
The painting’s reappearance sparked renewed interest in the life of the real Princess Tutu. Peppiatt hopes to learn more about the woman herself and is currently investigating various sources that say she is still alive in Lagos, Nigeria.