A Recently Discovered Portrait by Nigerian Star Ben Enwonwu Sold for Nearly Eight Times Its Estimate at Sotheby’s London

Some see the sale as a bellwether for the market for modern and contemporary art from Africa.

Ben Enwonwu's Christine. Courtesy of Sotheby's.

A recent sale of a portrait by Ben Enwonwu has further cemented the hype growing around the Nigerian master of modernity’s name. At Sotheby’s London last night, Enwonwu’s painting Christine (1971) sold for £1.1 million ($1.4 million), leaping beyond its pre-sale high estimate of £150,000 ($192,000).

After a 13-minute bidding war between four buyers, the work sold to an undisclosed collector, taking the top spot in the evening’s modern and contemporary African art sale.

The subject of the painting, Christine Elizabeth Davis, was an American hairstylist of West Indian descent whose husband had commissioned the work. Staff members at the auction house “were simply blown away by her beauty,” said Hannah O’Leary, Sotheby’s head of modern and contemporary African art.

The artist, who died in 1994, has become eagerly sought-after since his portrait Tutu sold for £1.2 million ($1.7 million) at Bonhams London in 2018. The painting, of Nigerian royal princess Adetutu Ademiluyi, had been missing for 40 years before it was discovered in a London apartment.

Like Tutu, the recently sold Christine also came to auction via some luck. “The family were unaware of the significance of the painting or the importance of the artist, until a chance ‘googling’ of the signature led them to Sotheby’s free Online Estimate Platform,” the London auction house said in a statement.

Enwonwu’s posthumous rise could be seen as a bellwether for the growing market for modern and contemporary art from Africa. The sale, the auction house’s fifth in the category, included 100 works from 56 artists hailing from 20 African countries. The 10 lots on offer by Enwonwu sold for a combined £1.8 million ($2.3 million). Altogether, the sale realized £4 million ($5.1 million), nearly doubling the pre-sale high estimate of £2.8 million ($3.5 million).

“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,” said O’Leary. “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.”

Gerard Sekoto, Cyclists in Sophiatown (1940). Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

The emerging Congolese art star Eddy Kamuanga Ilunga’s Duty of Memory went for £62,500 ($79,131), while  another work by the artist, Influence, sold for £50,000 ($63,305), both doubling their pre-sale estimates, though not beating the artist’s current record of £81,250 ($105,876).

Other notable artists in the sale included William Kentridge, El Anatsui, and Gerard Sekoto. The latter’s work on offer, a moody canvas in a golden frame called Cyclists in Sophiatown, was made in 1940, in pre-apartheid times in South Africa. Four years after the work was made, the South African government began setting in motion its forced removal of residents from this vibrant black suburb of Johannesburg. The work sold for £362,500 ($458,961).

Another more abstract work by Enwonwu, Africa Dances (1970), achieved £471,000 ($596,333) above an estimate of about £175,000.

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