By Estelle Shirbon and Alexis Akwagyiram
A portrait of a Nigerian princess that was lost for more than 40 years has been found in a London flat and will be sold at an auction screened live in Lagos, allowing Nigerian art lovers to make bids direct from the West African mega-city
“Tutu“, 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.
“It was his greatest masterpiece and people have been asking ‘where is Tutu?’ So to have this image turn up is extraordinary,” said Giles Peppiatt, an expert in modern and contemporary African art at London auction house Bonhams, who identified the painting.
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.
Oliver Enwonwu, the artist’s son, is president of the Society of Nigerian Artists
“This is a very significant discovery, given my father’s contribution to Nigerian art and African art, more broadly,” he told Reuters in Lagos.
Peppiatt said it had come as a shock to him to find the painting hanging in a north London home where he was called to examine it, because he had been on several wild goose chases in the past in search of the originals.
The owners did not wish to be identified, he said.
The work will be sold on Feb. 28 in an auction at Bonhams in London that will be shown live at the Wheatbaker, a boutique hotel popular with artists in Ikoyi, a wealthy neighborhood of Lagos.
The price estimate is between 200,000 and 300,000 pounds ($277,600-$416,400).
“We are quite hopeful about it because the market for Nigerian modern art is really strong at the moment. I’ve been in the market for 12 years and it’s as strong as I’ve ever known it,” Peppiatt told Reuters.
One of the challenges in organising a live auction connecting London and Lagos could be the Nigerian city’s unreliable power supplies. Despite the widespread use of back-up generators, electricity blackouts are a frequent feature of Lagos life, often affecting internet connections.
“It’s the first time anyone has done it so that will be rather exciting,” said Peppiatt. “Assuming the IT works.”
(Writing by Estelle Shirbon; editing by Stephen Addison)