Iconic Nigerian artist Ben Enwonwu’s newly found painting sells for seven times its estimate at $1.4 million

Ben Enwonwu's recently discovered Christine was valued at $200,000. It ended up selling for $1.4 million (Sotheby’s)
  • A painting by renowned artist Enwonwu was recently found as part of a collection belonging to a family living in Texas for over 40 years.
  • The family had no idea what they had until one of them googled the signature scribbled on the old painting and found it to be a precursor to the artist’s best-known work sold for $1.6 million in 2018.
  • The painting in question titled, ‘Christine’ was originally estimated to go for up to £150,000 ($200,000) according to Sotheby’s. It ended up selling for nearly eight times its value.

Ben Enwonwu’s Christine’ is making waves in the modern and contemporary art world.

The 1971 painting surpassed its pre-sale high estimate of $192,000 (N 69 million) when it sold for $1.4 million (N 506 million).

It was bought by an undisclosed collector after a 13-minute bidding war between four buyers at the Modern & Contemporary African Art Auction on October 15, 2019, at Sotheby’s in London.

As reported by Business Insider Sub-Saharan Africa, the subject of this beautiful portrayal is Christine Elizabeth Davis, an American hairstylist of West Indian descent. She moved from Accra, Ghana to Lagos with her British missionary husband, Elvis Davis. She is the late stepmother of the present owners.

The artwork, which was painted in less than a week, depicts Christine in traditional Nigerian attire, including a Gele (headscarf). It was done in 1971 after Enwonwu was commissioned by Christine’s husband to paint a portrait of his wife. The artist was appointed the first professor of Fine Arts at the University of Ife around the same time.

The couple eventually moved back to Texas, where Christine, who was in her mid-30s at the time, passed away. The painting remained forgotten as it hung on the family’s wall for decades until its recent discovery.

Christine precedes Enwonwu’s 1974 portrayal of Ife royal princess Adetutu “Tutu” Ademiluyi also known as “the African Mona Lisa." After missing for decades, it was recently found in a London flat.

Booker Prize-winning novelist Ben Okri told AFP: “It has been a legendary painting for 40 years, everybody keeps talking about Tutu, saying ‘where is Tutu?’” 

“He wasn’t just painting the girl, he was painting the whole tradition. It’s a symbol of hope and regeneration to Nigeria, it’s a symbol of the phoenix rising.”

This iconic painting also exceeded its estimated value by selling for $1.7 million (N 614.5 million). It was initially expected to fetch about $414,000 (N 149.6 million).

With records like this, Enwonwu, who died on February 5, 1994, is helping the hype growing around the African art world according to Hannah O’Leary, Sotheby’s head of modern and contemporary African art.

“If today’s auction confirms anything, it’s the position of African art as one of the most eclectic and exciting areas of the global art market today. I encourage collectors and art lovers across the globe to watch this space as works by such incredibly talented artists continue to capture the attention of the art world," said O’Leary.

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