A Family Found a Long-Forgotten Portrait of Their Mother at Home. It Turns Out It’s by One of Africa’s Most Famous Artists

This isn't the first time a lucky family has found a work by Ben Enwonwu in their home.

Ben Enwonwu, Christine (1971). Courtesy of Sotheby's.

For decades, a painting of a Texas family’s mother hung on the walls of their home. On a whim, they Googled the name of the artist and found a stunning result. The portrait, titled Christine, was painted by one of Nigeria’s greatest artists, Ben Enwonwu. 

The warm, minimal portrait, saturated with earthy ochres, depicts Christine Elizabeth Davis, an American hairstylist of West Indian descent, then in her 30s. It was commissioned in 1971 by Davis’s husband, who had met Enwonwu two years before, after the couple had moved to Lagos, Nigeria. Years later, Davis and her husband settled back to the US and put the painting on display.

Now the painting will hit the auction block at Sotheby’s London in its modern and contemporary African art sale on October 15, according to Quartz. It’s estimated to sell for £150,000 ($200,000).

Ben Enwonwu, Tutu (1973). The first of three Tutu paintings was stolen in 1994 and its whereabouts remain unknown. Courtesy of Bonhams London.

Ben Enwonwu, Tutu (1973). Courtesy of Bonhams London.

Oddly, the discovery of Christine is similar to that of Enwonwu’s 1974 painting Tutu, which was uncovered last year. The owners of that work, a portrait of Nigerian royal princess Adetutu Ademiluyi, which has been referred to as the “African Mona Lisa,” brought in a Bonhams specialist to appraise it. In an interview with the Financial Times, Nigerian novelist Ben Okri called it the “most significant discovery in contemporary African art in over 50 years.” 

Tutu went on to sell for £1.2 million ($1.7 million) at Bonhams’s inaugural evening sale of contemporary African art, soaring above its £300,000 pre-sale estimate to become the most expensive Nigerian Modernist work ever sold at auction.

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