As It Happens

Decades after it went missing, Nigerian masterpiece is found in London apartment

It's considered one of the masterpieces of modern Nigerian art. But for many years, Ben Enwonwu's 1974 painting Tutu was lost to the art world.
Nigerian author Ben Okri poses with Tutu, a long-lost masterpiece recently discovered in a London apartment. (Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images)
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Story transcript

A long lost Nigerian masterpiece painting has been found in a London apartment. 

Tutu, Ben Enwonwu's 1974 portrait of the Yoruba princess Adetutu Ademiluyi, has been described as a "national icon in Nigeria" and a "symbol of reconciliation" following the Nigerian Civil War.

It hadn't been seen publicly since it was exhibited in Italy in 1975. Enwonwu died in 1994, and with him, any knowledge of the painting's whereabouts.

That is, until Giles Peppiatt got a call from a London family looking to have a painting from their late father's art collection appraised. 

"I walked into this sitting room and there was this painting, and it wasn't anything I'd expected at all," Peppiatt, the director of modern African art at Bonhams Auction House, told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

"It was a sort of lightbulb moment."

Bonhams is auctioning off the painting on Feb. 28 and expects to garner bids of at least £300,000 ($523,383 Cdn) — a record for a Nigerian artist.

'Almost mythical status'

The painting is one of three portraits Enwonwu painted of Ademiluyi, also known as Tutu, the granddaughter of a former Ife King.

Enwonwu would have met the princess while he was working as a professor fine arts at the University of Ife, Peppiatt said.

"She is a lady of absolutely striking beauty and he was transfixed, I don't think unreasonably," he said.

"And so this wonderful portrait was produced."

Tutu, Ben Enwonwu’s 1974 painting of the Ife princess Adetutu Ademiluyi, could fetch more than $500,000 at auction. (Ben Enwonwu/Bonhams Press Office)

The image has gained "an almost a mythical status" in Nigeria, Pappiatt said, in part because of the mystery surrounding its whereabouts.

In Bonhams press release, Booker Prize winning Nigerian novelist Ben Okri called Tutu's recovery "the most significant discovery in contemporary African art in over 50 years."

"It is a cause for celebration, a potentially transforming moment in the world of art," he said.

From one private collection to another

The London family, who requested anonymity, had no idea about its financial and cultural value, Pappiatt said. They inherited it from their father.

"They knew very little of how it was acquired other than their father had business interests in Nigeria," Peppiatt said. 

"It's like the sort of things you hear on the Antiques Roadshow — that suddenly people have these wonderful things that are worth enormous sums of money."

Giles Peppiatt, director of modern African art at Bonhams, called Tutu 'an enchanting work.' (Pius Utomi Ekpei/AFP/Getty Images)

Peppiatt said Bonhams reached out the artist's estate to make sure there are no outstanding claims on the painting.

The auction house learned that it had been sold from the estate at some point, but there was no record of who purchased it, he said.

The chances of it ending up with a Nigerian institution are slim, he said. 

"Whether it will be purchased back by the Nigerian state, I just don't know," Peppiatt said.

"The biggest collectors now are private individuals, generally. So I think probably it'll be bought by a private individual with connection to Africa or Nigeria."

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