The tale of a portrait long-lost, underestimation, a 20-minute bidding frenzy and a record-shattering sale.
Before I delve into details of such stirring summary, let’s discuss the legendary Ben Enwonwu MBE. One of Nigeria’s foremost contemporary artists, Enwonwu was famed for his sui-generis aesthetic which drew from his Igbo heritage and his British art academic training. Enwonwu’s works became acclaimed internationally being that he was the first African artist commissioned to sculpt a bronze portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, hence his British order of chivalry (MBE).
A force to reckon with in the arts, Enwonwu had other major works such as Anyanwu (the Igbo sun god), the drummer boy and the mysterious painting of the Ife royal Princess Adetutu Ademiluyi, the actual conversation starter.
Tutu, as titled by the late Enwonwu, is the vanished iconic portrait that was lost for decades, which in part thanks to Giles Peppiatt, Director of African art at Bonhams, recently showed up at a “modest” flat in London, 20 years after depiction. Dubbed “Africa’s Mona Lisa”by renowned novelist, Ben Okri, Tutu is one out of three illustrations of the princess rendered in 1973, which went on to become a symbol of Nigerian reconciliation following Biafra’s quest for independence. Notwithstanding the fact that no one had seen the real painting, Tutu painting were hung on the walls of Nigerian homes- simply cultic.
Estimated to rake in £300,000 at best, Tutu was put up for auction by London art dealer, Bonhams’ Africa Now in London at 101 New Bond Street London, but ended up setting a new record for Enwonwu and African art in general as it got the red seal for £1,205,000 (about $1.68 million and 508, 358, 301 in Naira)- more than four times the highest estimate.
There’ve been many paintings from across the whole of Africa that have sold for high amounts but none at the price that Ben Enwonwu’s Tutu sold at.
“The portrait of Tutu is a national icon in Nigeria, and of huge cultural significance. It is very exciting to have played a part in the discovery and sale of this remarkable work. I am delighted that it generated so much interest and set a new world record for the artist,” Giles Peppiatt commented.
According to novelist, Ben Okri, this amounts to the most significant discovery in African art as yet.
"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,” said Okri.