A 1974 painting of a Nigerian princess Adetutu “Tutu” Ademiluyi by renowned Nigerian artist, Ben Enwonwu MBE, which had been lost for nearly four decades, and was found in December has been sold at Bonham’s auction house in London for US$1.7 million.
Odinigwe Benedict Chukwukadibia Enwonwu MBE, also known as Ben Enwonwu MBE is a pioneer in African modernist art movement. The artist gained prominence after he was commissioned to create a bronze sculpture of Queen Elizabeth II during her visit to Nigeria in 1956.
Bonham’s director of modern African art Giles Peppiatt found the painting when he went to appraise artwork at a “modest north London flat.”
“The portrait of Tutu is a national icon in Nigeria, and of huge cultural significance,” Peppiatt said, according to BBC. “I am delighted that it generated so much interest and set a new world record for the artist. It is very exciting to have played a part in the discovery and sale of this remarkable work.”
“On discovering the long-missing work,” Peppiatt told the CNN. “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.”
Enwonwu was born in Umuese-Aroli, Onitsha, Nigeria in 1917, and later went on to study at the Goldsmith College in London in 1944, and Ruskin College, Oxford, from 1944 to 1946, pioneered in African modernist art movement.
The painter completed three versions of the piece based on Tutu, the other two are yet to be found. Enwonwu’s son, Oliver, told the AFP, “We are very happy that modern Nigerian art has begun to get its actual value.”
Ademiluyi is a symbol of national reconciliation after the 1967-1970 Biafran War. She was a granddaughter of a revered traditional ruler from the Yoruba ethnic group.
Enwonwu belonged to the Igbo ethnic group, the largest ethnic group 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.
Acclaimed Booker-prize winning Nigerian novelist, Ben Okri, known for his writings in the post-modern and post-colonial traditions said the painting’s discovery was “the most significant in contemporary African art in 50 years.”