The long missing painting of an Ife princess that attained an almost mythical status after going decades unseen has been discovered in a north London flat, the London-based Guardian newspaper reported Tuesday.
Ben Enwonwu’s 1973 painting of the Princess Adetutu Ademiluyi, known as Tutu, is a national icon in Nigeria, with poster reproductions hanging on walls in homes all over the country.
The artist, regarded as the founding father of Nigerian modernism, painted three versions of Tutu and the image became a symbol of national reconciliation.
But all three were lost and became the subject of much speculation.
Reacting to the discovery of what might be the original Tutu, renowned Nigerian novelist and Booker Prize winner, Ben Okri, said it amounted to the most significant discovery in contemporary African art in over 50 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,” he said.
According to The Guardian, the discovery was made by Giles Peppiatt, the director of modern African art at the British-based auction house Bonhams.
He estimated he gets sent a Tutu every eight weeks and it invariably turns out to be a print. But late last year, a family in north London approached him asking him to come and see a painting they said was by Enwonwu.
“Sometimes you go somewhere on a wing and a prayer, you don’t know what you are going to see … this was an enormous surprise.
“It is a picture, image-wise, that has been known to me for a long time, so it was a real lightbulb moment; I thought: ‘Oh my god, this is extraordinary’,” he said.
The family has asked to remain anonymous, but Peppiatt described them as perfectly ordinary. The painting was something their father had acquired, he said, adding:
“As is often the way, there are things your parents buy and you haven’t a clue why they bought it or what the value of it is … you just inherit it.”
The painting will be sold at Bonhams in London on February 28 but such is the anticipated interest – “its appearance on the market is a momentous event”, said Peppiatt – that the sale will also be broadcast live to bidders in Lagos.
y Okechukwu Uwaezuoke with Agency Report