1 March 2018

Nigeria: 'African Mona Lisa' Smashes Estimates At London Auction

Photo: This Day
Ben Enwonwu’s 1973 painting of the Princess Adetutu Ademiluyi, known as Tutu.

A portrait of a Nigerian princess that went missing for four decades has sold at auction in London for $1.7 million. The painting, Tutu, by the late artist Ben Enwonwu, recently turned up in someone's flat.

A long-lost portrait of Nigerian princess Adetutu "Tutu" Ademiluyi sold at auction on Wednesday for four times the expected price.

The 1974 painting, by the Nigerian artist Ben Enwonwu, went under the hammer at Bonhams auction house in London for 1.2 million pounds (€1.4 million, $1.7 million). It had been expected to fetch some 300,000 pounds.

The sale, made to a telephone bidder, was greeted with applause by dozens of people who had gathered at a hotel in the Nigerian capital, Lagos, to watch the bidding process via internet on a giant screen.

Tutu turned up in a north London flat some 40 years after going missing. It was last displayed at an art show in Lagos a year after it was painted. A family who found the portrait were "pretty astounded" to find out that it was "a missing masterpiece," said Giles Peppiatt, Bonham's director of modern African art.

The auction house said the painting was "rare and remarkable" of an Ife royal princess, a national icon in Nigeria, and of huge cultural significance.

Two more paintings exist

The painter, Enwonwu -- who died in 1994 -- is considered the father of Nigerian modernism. He painted three versions of Tutu, the other two remain lost.

Enwonwu's son, Oliver, said: "We are very happy that modern Nigerian art has begun to get its actual value."

The portrait of Ademiluyi, who was a grand-daughter of a revered traditional ruler from the Yoruba ethnic group, holds special significance in Nigeria as a symbol of national reconciliation after the 1967-1970 Biafran War.

Enwonwu belonged to the Igbo ethnic group, the largest in the southeastern region of Nigeria that had tried to secede under the name of Biafra. The Yoruba people, whose homeland is in the southwest, were mostly on the opposing side in the war.

Booker Prize-winning novelist Ben Okri told the Agence France-Presse news agency earlier this month that the painting had taken on almost mythical status in his native Nigeria where it was thought of as "the African Mona Lisa".

"It has been a legendary painting for 40 years, everybody keeps talking about Tutu, saying 'where is Tutu?'" he said after a viewing at Bonhams. Okri said the portrait is a "symbol of hope and regeneration to Nigeria, it's a symbol of the phoenix rising."

Author: Heike Mund (ss)

mm/rc (AFP, Reuters)

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