Tutu, the long-lost portrait by Ben Enwonwu of the Ife royal princess Adetutu Ademiluyi – described by Booker Prize winning Nigerian novelist, Ben Okri as Africa’s “Mona Lisa” – set a new record for the artist’s work at an auction, selling for £1,205,000 (N520.2 million, €1.4 million, $1.7 million) at Bonhams Africa Now sale in London Wednesday.
Before the auction, Bonhams had set an estimate of £200,000-300,000 for the painting.
The auction, which was broadcast live to a Bonhams auction event at The Wheatbaker Hotel in Lagos, in a pioneering move which allowed bidders participate in the auction in real time, kicked off at about 5 pm in London and started broadcasting live to the Lagos participants at 6 pm.
Expectedly, the identity of the winning bidder was not disclosed.
The record-breaking painting, which was one of the three original versions of Tutu painted by Enwonwu, was produced in 1974.
According to Neil Coventry, the Bonhams Lagos coordinator: “It is a well-deserved prize for a well-renowned artist.”
The maiden, who could easily have passed for a Fulani girl, was none other than Adetutu Ademiluyi, a member of the Ile-Ife royal family. She was, as the late Nigeria’s iconic artist would later discover, the granddaughter of the then O’oni of Ife.
This encounter, which took place sometime in 1973 when Enwonwu was on a visit to the Yoruba monarch’s palace, paved the way to the production of the paintings.
His bid to get Adetutu to sit for a portrait was at first not enthusiastically considered by her parents. But the latter’s reluctance soon caved in to Enwonwu’s persistence.
Hence, between that year and the following year, three versions of this portrait painting – which became so to speak Nigeria’s equivalent of Mona Lisa – were produced.
There were other reasons why Tutu generated so much interest among the bidders. Enwonwu, as the story goes, never sold the original Tutu.
Indeed, this painting reportedly never left his private collection until his passage in 1994. Even so, signed copies of this 1973 oil on canvas painting have found their way into many private collections in Nigeria.
Consequently, the whereabouts of all the three original paintings remained hitherto officially unknown. This would explain the legendary long search for Tutu, especially for the original of this oil on canvas painting done in 1973.
Also a mystery is the whereabouts of the third Tutu. So, that leaves the version up for sale at Bonhams as the only known original example of the image.