The painting is of the Ife princess Adetutu Ademiluyi, known as Tutu, and was painted by artist Ben Enwonwu in 1974. He painted three portraits of her, all of which disappeared, and became national cultural icons. Poster reproductions of the works hang on walls all over Nigeria, representing peace after the Nigerian-Biafran conflict in the 60s.
The painting is so iconic, it has been named the "African Mona Lisa," so it was a "momentous occasion" when it showed up, according to Bonhams Auction House.
The piece was expected to fetch up to R4.9 million when it went up for auction in London on Wednesday, but it succeeded all estimates and ended up selling for R19.6 million — a new record for Enwonwu.
Giles Peppiatt, Bonham's director of modern african art, uncovered the artwork when a family in North London contacted him. They knew Nigerian artwork had been selling for a lot of money at recent auctions, and were curious to know what their portrait was worth. They had no idea they had a missing masterpiece, Peppiatt said.
"It is very exciting to have played a part in the discovery and sale of this remarkable work," he told The Guardian.
Enwonwu was a student at Goldsmiths, Ruskin College, Oxford, and is considered the father of Nigerian modernism. He died in 1994, and the whereabouts of his other two paintings of Tutu remain a mystery.
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