The portrait, Christine, was by one of the most revered African artists of the 20th century, Ben Enwonwu. The captivating sitter was Christine Elizabeth Davis, an American hair stylist of West Indian descent. The painting was completed in under a week as Christine was able to hold her pose for as long as needed. Christine, who was in her mid-30s at the time, passed away in Texas thereafter. But the painting remained in the family.
Just three months ago it was valued by Sothebys at around $200,000, but on Tuesday the portrait sold in London for over seven times the estimated price at $1.4 million.
And it’s not the first remarkable story of a Ben Enwonwu find. His best known portrait, Tutu, is a depiction of Nigerian royal princess Adetutu Ademiluyi (Tutu), often dubbed the “Nigerian Mona Lisa.” Prints of Tutu adorned the walls of living rooms across Nigeria.
The 2017 discovery of Tutu was equally fascinating. The long-lost painting was found in a modest London flat and the owners had no idea of its importance or value. It sold at a record $1.6 million in 2018. It was originally estimated at a quarter of that price.
Enwonwu, who died aged 77 in 1994, was a Nigerian artist whose career spanned 60 years seeing the journey of Nigeria from a British colony to an independent nation. His story is unique in that not only did he become famous in his own country, but also in the UK where he studied.
While African art only accounted for 0.1% of global sales in 2016, these recent interesting discoveries and the impressively high prices they are garnering at auctions is cause for optimism. They are also proof that the international market for African art is indeed growing.