An artwork by Nigerian artist Ben Enwonwu which was thought to have been lost has been discovered in London.
It was last seen in 1975 but is now up for sale after its surprise rediscovery. The work was uncovered by Giles Peppiatt, director of Modern African Art at Bonhams after a north London family contacted him following recent sales of Nigerian artworks.
“It was quite remarkable when I walked into this flat in north London and saw it hanging on the wall, it was about the last thing I expected to see,” he explained.
“As soon as I saw it I knew it was authentic, but I couldn’t say that at the time of the owners because you can’t just blurt that out.”
The rediscovered painting was last displayed at the Italian embassy in Lagos in 1975 and was bought by the father of the north London family during a business trip.
The painting is expected to sell for around £250,000 ($347,000; €282,000) when it goes on sale jointly in London and Lagos on February 28, but Ben Okri has argued that its worth extends beyond financial.
Enwonwu died in 1994 but is still considered the father of Nigerian modernism. He made three paintings of “Tutu”, the locations of all of which had been a mystery until the recent discovery.
The various artwork became symbols of peace following the clash of ethnic groups in the Nigerian–Biafran conflict of the late 1960s. The painter stumbled upon his most famous muse by accident.
“The sitter is Yoruba and Ben Enwonwu was Ibo, so they were of different ethnic tribes. It was an important symbol of reconciliation,” said Eliza Sawyer, a specialist in Bonhams’ African Art department.
“He would go around local villages and sketch local scenes and figures, and he encountered this young woman whom he thought was just entrancing and requested to paint her, not knowing her stature."
Enwonwu was from a politically-connected Ibo family and his father was a traditional sculptor.