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A long lost painting, so important to the Nigerian people that it’s often found in poster reproduction form on the walls of their homes, was discovered late last year in a north London apartment, according to The Guardian‘s Mark Brown. Earlier this week, Bonhams auction house announced that the painting, Ben Enwonwu’s “Tutu” (1974), would feature in its Africa Now auction alongside works by artists like El Anatsui and Romuald Hazoumè on February 28. “Tutu” is estimated to sell for between £200,000 and £300,000 (~$277,00–416,000).
The “father of Nigerian modernism,” painter and sculptor Benedict Chukwukadibia Enwonwu, MBE (aka Ben Enwonwu) created three different versions of “Tutu,” portraits of a young woman whose real name was Adetutu Ademiluyi, a princess of Ife. Enwonwu met Tutu while he was teaching art at the University of Ife in the early 1970s. (He was appointed the first fine art professor at the institution in 1971.) Painted only a couple years after the end of the Nigerian civil war, the portraits served as a “symbol of national reconciliation,” according to Bonhams. “The paintings are some of the most enigmatic works produced by a Nigerian artist in the 20th century.”
The first painting in the series meant so much to the artist that he kept it in his studio until his death in 1994; a version of “Tutu” was on display at his funeral. Unfortunately, since then all three versions of “Tutu” were somehow lost. The second version is the one recently uncovered. The other two remain missing.
Giles Peppiatt, Bonhams Director of African Art, told The Guardian that he often finds himself fielding inquiries from people claiming to have a “Tutu” painting, but up until now, they’ve always been reproductions. Then, late last year, a family in north London (who chose to remain anonymous) approached him with the original Enwonwu, which their father had acquired somehow.
“As is often the way, there are things your parents buy and you haven’t a clue why they bought it or what the value of it is,” Peppiatt told The Guardian. “You just inherit it.”
In the spring issue of Bonhams Magazine, renowned Nigerian novelist and Man Booker Prize-winner Ben Okri wrote of the news: “It amounts to the most significant discovery in contemporary African art in over fifty 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.”
In anticipation of widespread interest in bidding for “Tutu,” Bonhams’ auction later this month will broadcast live to bidders in Lagos. If the painting sells for more than £300,000, it will set a new record for a modern Nigerian artist.
Update, 3/1/2018: Ben Enwonwu’s “Tutu” sold for £1,205,000 (~$1.6 million) on Wednesday, February 28, smashing the auction record for a work by a Nigerian modernist. The buyer remains unknown.