Published: February 28, 2018
LONDON — “Tutu,” a long-lost portrait by Ben Enwonwu of the Ife royal princess Adetutu Ademiluyi – described by Booker Prize-winning Nigerian novelist Ben Okri as “Africa’s ‘Mona Lisa’” – set a new world record for the artist’s work at auction, achieving $1,6 million at Bonhams Africa Now sale on February 28. After a 20-minute bidding frenzy, the work sold to a bidder on the telephone. The result makes it the most valuable Modern Nigerian painting sold at auction. It had an estimate of $275/400,000.
Bonhams’ director of Modern African art Giles Peppiatt said, “The portrait of Tutu is a national icon in Nigeria, and of huge cultural significance. I am delighted that it generated so much interest and set a new world record for the artist. It is very exciting to have played a part in the discovery and sale of this remarkable work.”
Enwonwu painted three versions of “Tutu” during 1973-74, and the image became a symbol of national reconciliation for a country struggling for unity in the wake of the Nigerian-Biafran conflict of the late 1960s. All three paintings had been considered lost until Peppiatt discovered the current picture in a London apartment, where it had hung for the past 30 years.
Writing in the spring edition of Bonhams Magazine, the Nigerian-born Okri described “Tutu” as “Africa’s ‘Mona Lisa.’” He said, “It amounts to the most significant discovery in contemporary African art in more than 50 years. It is the only authentic ‘Tutu,’ the equivalent of some rare archaeological find. It is a cause for celebration, a potentially transforming moment in the world of art.”
Enwonwu’s work “Negritude,” also painted in the 1970s, was sold for $135,000 in the same sale.
In a pioneering move, the sale was broadcast live to a Bonhams auction event in Lagos, where bidders were able to participate in real time.
For information, +44 20 7468 8210 or www.bonhams.com.
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