On 4 June 2018, at the 20th Modern and Contemporary Art Auction organized by Arthouse Contemporary Limited, Ben Enwonwu’s 1975 bronze sculpture, Anyanwu, was the most expensive piece of art sold. After a few minutes of almost exciting bidding, it sold for N52 million (hammer price). This is about the same as the record of N54 million (hammer + premium price) set by a slightly bigger edition of Anyanwu (1962) at the May 2017 Arthouse auction.
The sculpture, considered Enwonwu’s greatest work, is particularly significant for being Enwonwu’s initial expression of African cultural revival and political independence, a result of his encounter with Negritude, the black affirmation movement that was crucial to his development as an African modernist. The original version of Anyanwu, a representation of the Igbo sun deity, was produced in 1955 to mark the establishment of the National Museum in Lagos. In October 1966, an edition, commissioned by the Nigerian government, was presented to the United Nations by the Nigerian ambassador to the United Nations, who used the opportunity to remind the world of European Modernism’s debt to African art.
At the auction, despite the full room and bids in millions of naira, bidders seemed reserved as lots after lots were sold for below or just above their low estimates—even the star lot, Anyanwu, barely scaled its low estimate of N50 million. I wondered if the problem was lack of enthusiasm for the offerings or if the auction house had been too optimistic in their estimates. Could it be that in striving for headline grabbing prices, Arthouse forgot that realistic estimates do encourage participation, which generates excitement and competition that could notch up prices, often to record levels? A handful of works scrapped over high estimates including Adetutu (Gele Series) (2018) by Segun Aiyesan, Untitled (1962) by Simon Okeke, Into Pythaiosas Labrynth (2016) by Promise O’nali, and Remi (1977) by Ben Enwonwu.