At £1,205,000, Ben Enwonwu’s long lost work “Tutu” became the costliest Modern Nigerian painting to be sold in an auction, which took place at Bonhams London on February 28, 2018. The sale was broadcast live in a pioneering move to a Bonhams auction event in Lagos, and “Tutu,” set with an estimate of £200,000-300,000, created a stir among the collectors, as they engaged in a battle of bids for 20 minutes before it was sold to a bidder on the telephone, setting a new world record for the artist.
Described as Africa’s Mona Lisa by Booker Prize-winning Nigerian novelist Ben Okri, “Tutu” is the portrait of the Ife royal princess Adetutu Ademiluyi created by Enwonwu, which stood out as an icon for national truce against the backdrop of the Nigerian-Biafran conflict of the late 1960s. Okri, penning his note in the spring edition of Bonhams Magazine, described the work as “the most significant discovery in contemporary African art in over fifty years.” He also added, “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.”
“Tutu” was created in three versions by Enwonwu during 1973-74, and all of them went missing until Giles Peppiatt, Bonham’s Director of Modern African Art, found the current version in a London apartment, hanging there for the last 30 years. He quoted, “The portrait of Tutu is a national icon in Nigeria, and of huge cultural significance. 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.”
The auction also included “Negritude” — Enwonwu’s work from the 1970s, which fetched £100,000 in the sale.