The once-missing painting of Ife royal princess Adetutu Ademiluyi by artist, Ben Enwonwu, has sold for £1,205,000, approximately N520.2 million. The auction took place on Wednesday at Bonhams Africa Now sale in London.
The portrait of the Ife royal Princess Adetutu Ademiluyi, was missing for more than twenty years until it was discovered in a London flat last year. The painting is one of three depictions of the princess painted in 1973, which became a symbol of Nigerian reconciliation after the war for Biafran independence.
The paintings grew in fame not only for their beauty but for the mystery surrounding their disappearance. The eventual discovery of “Tutu” is partly thanks to the efforts of Giles Peppiatt, Director of African art at Bonhams, who for years made it his mission to find them. People brought him a number of prints but they all transpired to be fakes. Then one day in December 2017, he finally found the real thing.
After receiving a tip, Peppiatt made a visit to a “modest” apartment in north London and discovered the painting had been hanging there for the last 30 years. According to Bonhams, Peppiatt said: “I was absolutely staggered when I first saw the piece. The owners, who had inherited it, had no idea of its current value.” The family behind the discovery has chosen to remain anonymous.
“On discovering the long-missing work,” continued Peppiatt, “I felt a little like Howard Carter peering into Tutankhamen’s tomb. When Carter was asked by Lord Carnarvon ‘What can you see?’, Carter replied ‘Wonderful things… Wonderful things.’ And so it was for me on that dark December night.”
Ben Enwonwu, regarded as the founding father of Nigerian modernism, painted three versions of Tutu and the image became a symbol of national reconciliation. But all three were lost and became the subject of much speculation.
Tutu is regarded as his greatest masterpiece – the image was on display at his funeral in 1994.
In a new approach to bidding, the auction was broadcast live to a Bonhams auction event at The Wheatbaker Hotel in Lagos.
Bidders participated in the auction in real time.
Bonhams had set an estimate of £200,000-300,000 for the painting before the auction but the masterpiece defied the numbers and made more than four times of the expectation.
“It is a well deserved prize for a well renowned artist,” said Neil Coventry, the Bonhams Lagos coordinator.
The winning bidder was not disclosed.
Nigeria award winning writer Ben Okri say: “as dem discover dis painting, na one of di most important things wey go happen to African art for over 50 years. Na original Tutu…and na time to jolli because e fit to change world of art.”
“The portrait of Tutu is a national icon in Nigeria, and of huge cultural significance,” said Giles Peppiatt, Bonham’s director of modern African art. “I am delighted that it generated so much interest and set a new world record for the artist.”
Booker Prize winning novelist Ben Okri described the painting as “Africa’s Mona Lisa.” Even when no one had seen the real painting in years, posters Tutu hanged on the walls of homes around Nigeria.
“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,” said Okri.
Ben Enwonwu is perhaps Nigeria’s most renowned contemporary artist, but his famous painting is believed to have disappeared from his studio in 1994.