Tutu, the iconic Nigerian portrait that was lost for decades, has sold for a record £1,205,000 (about $1.68 million)—more than four times the highest estimate.
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. Enwonwu is perhaps Nigeria’s most renowned contemporary artist, but his famous painting is believed to have disappeared from his studio in 1994.
In a “20-minute bidding frenzy” the painting sold to a bidder on the telephone during Bonhams’ Africa Now auction on Feb. 28, the London art dealer said in a statement. In the build-up to the auction, already optimistic auctioneers expected it to fetch as much as £300,000. Instead, they set a record for Enwonwu’s work.
For the first time, the auction was opened to bidders in Lagos, who took part in real time. The identity of the buyer was not provided. Another Enwonwu painting, Negritude, sold for £100,000 (nearly $140,000) at the auction, their sales overshadowing the other works in the lot.
A piece of Nigerian identity. (Ben Enwonwu/Bonhams)
“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.