Nigeria’s ‘Mona Lisa’ shown at home for first time since it resurfaced

The Nigerian Mona Lisa, a painting lost for more than 40 years and found in a London flat in February, is being exhibited in Nigeria for the first time since it disappeared.

“Tutu”, an art work by Nigeria’s best-known modern artist, Ben Enwonwu, was painted in 1974. It appeared at an art show in Lagos the following year, but its whereabouts after that were unknown, until it re-surfaced in north London.

The owners – who wished to remain anonymous – had called in Giles Peppiatt, an expert in modern and contemporary African art at the London auction house Bonhams, to identify their painting. He recognized Enwonwu’s portrait.

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“It was discovered by myself on a pretty routine valuation call to look at a work by Ben Enwonwu,” said Giles Peppiatt, director of contemporary African art at Bonhams. “I didn’t know what I was going to see. I turned up, and it was this amazing painting. We’d had no inkling ‘Tutu’ was there.

How it got there remains a bit of a mystery, Peppiatt said.

“All the family that owned it know is that it was owned by their father, who had business interests in Nigeria. He traveled and picked it up in the late or mid-70s.”

The family put the portrait up for sale, and it was auctioned for 1.2 million pounds ($1.57 million) in February to an anonymous buyer. The sale made it the highest-valued work of Nigerian modern art sold at auction.

“Tutu” was loaned to the Art X Lagos fair, held from Friday to Sunday, by Access Bank, the organizers said in a statement. Peppiatt said Access arranged the loan but is not the painting’s owner.

“‘Tutu’ is referred to as the African ‘Mona Lisa’ by virtue of this disappearance and re-emergence, and it is the first work of a modern Nigerian artist to sell for over a million pounds,” said Tokini Peterside, the art fair’s founder.

The original Mona Lisa, Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece, was stolen from the Louvre in 1911. The thief, Vincenzo Peruggia, eventually took it to Italy, where it was recovered and in 1914 returned to the Louvre.

The Nigerian painting is a portrait of Adetutu Ademiluyi, a grand-daughter of a traditional ruler from the Yoruba ethnic group. It holds special significance in Nigeria as a symbol of national reconciliation after the 1967-70 Biafran War.

Enwonwu belonged to the Igbo ethnic group, the largest in the southeastern region of Nigeria, which had tried to secede under the name of Biafra. The Yoruba, whose homeland is in the southwest, were mostly on the opposing side in the war.

Enwonwu painted three versions of the portrait. One is in a private collection in Lagos, while Peppiatt is hunting the third in Washington D.C., the expert said. Prints first made in the 1970s have been in circulation ever since and the images are familiar to many Nigerians. Enwonwu died in 1994.

David Hockney pool painting soars to $90 mln, record for living artist

An iconic 1972 painting by British artist David Hockney soared to $90.3 million at Christie’s on Thursday, smashing the record for the highest price ever paid at auction for a work by a living artist.

With Christie’s commission, “Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures),” surpassed the auction house’s pre-sale estimate of about $80 million, following a bidding war between two determined would-be buyers once the work hit $70 million.

The previous record for a work by a living artist was held by Jeff Koons’ sculpture “Balloon Dog,” which sold for $58.4 million in 2013. Hockney’s previous auction record was $28.4 million.

The 1972 work by the 81-year-old British artist, one of Hockney’s most famous paintings which depicts a man in a pink jacket looking down on another figure swimming underwater in a pool, was reported to have been consigned by British billionaire currency trader Joe Lewis.

Christie’s did not identify the seller or the successful bidder, who was bidding via telephone during a nearly 10-minute contest for the work.

Morgan Long, senior director of art investment house Fine Art Group, hailed “a great result for Christie’s,” saying it achieved its predicted $80 million price “through a combination of clever marketing and what looked like sheer determination on the part of (a) phone client to take the painting home.”

In a virtually unprecedented move for such a valuable painting, “Portrait of an Artist,” which was on exhibition at Tate Britain, the Pompidou Centre and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art over the past two years, was sold with no reserve, the minimum price at which the consignor agrees to sell a piece.

The price went far to boost the success of Christie’s post-war and contemporary art auction, which took in a total of $357.6 million, roughly the middle of its expected range, with 41 of the 48 lots on offer finding buyers.

“What we have learned from this week is that demand for great art remains global, with strong participation from American bidders and good activity from Europe and Asia,” Chief Executive Guillaume Cerutti said after the sale.

Other sale highlights included Francis Bacon’s “Study of Henrietta Moraes Laughing,” which sold for $21.7 million against a pre-sale estimate of $14 million to $18 million, and Alexander Calder’s “21 Feuilles Blanches,” which more than doubled its high estimate, selling for just under $18 million.

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