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At London auction, Nigerian master, Enwonwu sets world record

The late iconic artist, Ben Enwonwu, at work in his studio

On Wednesday, a unique edition of an iconic sculpture, Anyanwu by famous Nigerian artist, Ben Enwonwu (1917-1994) was sold for an auction world record price of £353,000 at Bonhams Africa Now – Modern Africa Sale in London.

Estimated at £150,000-200,000, Anyanwu, however, exceeded the target and gave the late modernist master his world record.

A statement from Bonhams put the total sale of the 2017 Africa Now auction at “more than £1.4 million.” Other sales that boosted the auction included ‘The Duet,’ by Yusuf Grillo which sold for £87,500; ‘Negritude’ by Enwonwu, which made £83,750; ‘The Glory of Ancient Benin,’ ‘Song of the City’ by Enwonwu sold for £75,000 against an estimate of £70,000-100,000; and ‘Adam and Eve’ by Prof. Uche Okeke, which sold for £56,250, but estimated at £20,000-300.

Provenance of Anyanwu: Widely considered the artist’s masterpiece, the 6ft 10 high statue was first conceived in 1954, when Enwonwu was commissioned to create a work marking the establishment of the National Museum in Lagos, which still stands the edifice at Onikan, Lagos.

He made a number of versions of the statue in different sizes over many years – subtly altering the concept with each edition – but this was the first full-sized cast to come to auction. It is from the second edition cast in 1956, and is believed to be the only one of this size from the second edition in existence.

Though a shift from the yearly May date of the sales at Bonhams, the African Now Modern 2017 is, however, sustaining its usual display of quite a lot of artists from Nigeria and other African countries.

Ahead of the auction, Bonham’s modern African art specialist, Giles Peppiatt, was in Lagos, Nigeria, where he briefed select guests. Peppiatt argued that “Ben Enwonwu was the first important Nigerian artist to reflect the sculptural traditions of his people in his work.”

With the results of the 2017 Africa Now Modern auction, Enwonwu has confirmed his spot as one of Africa’s leading modernists in the international art market. “Nowhere is this more spectacularly displayed than in his masterpiece Anyanwu. As the result achieved indicates – this is a new world record for an Enwonwu sculpture – there was fierce bidding to secure the right to own this exceptional and moving piece,” Peppiatt stated after the auction.

As “the third largest auction house in the world,” Bonhams, according to Peppiatt, has been in the forefront of showing Nigerian art to the European market. He boasted that modern Nigerian art was shown to a wider market “for the first time in 2008,” when Africa Now auction made its debut.

Indeed, it is noteworthy that there was a striking coincidence in 2008: Lagos-based Arthouse Contemporary actually made its debut with Nigeria-organised auction in the first quarter of the same year, followed by Bonhams’. For the first time in the history of African art, dedicated auctions for modern art of the continent unearthed high market value courtesy of Arthouse and Bonhams.



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