The first half of Sotheby’s inaugural Doha auction was a $3,740,850 sale of Orientalist art. The sale caps the curious rise of Orientalist painting as a favorite among Middle Eastern buyers who seem to relish the idealized image of their lands in the 19th Century. This affection is explained (somewhat) in a long and rambling essay on Artnet by Adrian Dannatt:
Orientialism is certainly much in vogue, a taste for its tropes having burgeoned throughout the Middle East as its prices have recently soared in the West. A major touring exhibition, “The Lure of the East,” is currently on view at the Sharjah Art Museum in Qatar (until Apr. 30, 2009), a Jean-Léon Gérôme retrospective is planned for the Musée d’Orsay in 2010 (which travels to the Walters Art Gallery and the Getty Museum) and the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha is soon to announce its own Orientalist exhibition.
Dannatt is in Egypt with Shafik Gabr who began collecting Orientalist works 15 years ago. Although Gabr addresses the question of how to both admire Edward Said’s critique from Orientalism while admiring and cherishing the Orientalist works themselves. However, it isn’t such a leap to remember that present day residents of the cities depicted by the Orientalists, especially those with the means to collect art, stand in approximately the same relationship to their own past as the Europeans did. That is to say, both the 19th Century Europeans and 21st Century wealthy residents of what was then called the Orient both have propensity to remember the charms of the street over their reality. The same dynamic is at work in American painting where works depicting the American West focus on the beauty and romance of the subject.
That romantic pull was certainly at work in Doha yesterday. Three works by Rudolf Ernst topped the sale. A Hard Bargain went for $542,500 which represented a tidy profit for the seller who could hardly have had the work in their possession for even two years because it was last bought at Sotheby’s in New York during an October sale in 2006. The estimate then was $150-200,000 but the picture sold for $363,200.
The Waterpipe Smoker rounds out the group and the top lots at $482,500. While not within easy reach of Sotheby’s experts, this work too had changed hands in Paris only four years ago. Those kinds of sales are the hallmark of a hot market. So is Fabbio Fabbi’s A Wedding Procession in Cairo which sold for $302,5oo in Doha yesterday despite being estimated at $120-180,000 and having sold in New York in 2002.
The Swiss Otto Pliny’s Evening Prayers also did well at $326,500, well above the $200-250,000 estimate. The painting could hardly have been called fresh to market seeing as it sold in 2007 in Germany. No matter. These works were fresh to Doha and the buyers were happy to meet them.