A portrait of a Nigerian princess that was lost for more than 40 years and found in a London flat was sold at an auction for 1 million pounds ($1.4 million) on Wednesday.
“Tutu”, an art work by Nigeria’s best-known modern artist Ben Enwonwu, was painted in 1974 and appeared at an art show in Lagos the following year but its whereabouts after that were unknown until it re-surfaced in north London.
The sale was a world record for the artist. The work had been expected to be sold for between 200 000 and 300 000 pounds ($277 600-$416 400).
The auction was held at Bonhams in London and shown live at the Wheatbaker, a hotel popular with artists in Lagos where the sale, made to a telephone bidder, was greeted with applause by about 70 people watching on a big screen.
“We are very happy that modern Nigerian art has begun to get its actual value,” said Oliver Enwonwu, the artist’s son, who is president of the Society of Nigerian Artists.
Tokini Peterside, who organises an annual art fair in Lagos, said it was a “very exciting moment for Nigerian art” since Enwonuwu was a “national treasure” who is regarded as a modern art pioneer in Nigeria.
“To have that artist’s work validated in the global marketplace is almost…a coming of age for Nigerian modern art,” she said.
The portrait of Adetutu 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.
Enwonwu painted three versions of the portrait. The other two remain lost, although prints first made in the 1970s have been in circulation ever since and the images are familiar to many Nigerians. Enwonwu died in 1994.