It may be a relatively small category dwarfed by the record contemporary art sales that dominate the headlines, but Orientalist art has made a quiet comeback in recent years. The market is becoming more and more competitive, with bidders from the wider Islamic world reaching as far as Southeast Asia.
Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Bonhams – the three auction houses that offer oriental art as a separate category in London – said they were seeing renewed interest in this category. And the surge in demand combined with the lack of supply points to a booming future for this genre in terms of prices.
“We expect continued strong interest and participation from both private and institutional buyers from across the Islamic world, from Morocco in the west to Southeast Asia in the east,” said Claude Piening, director of 19th century European paintings at Sotheby’s in London Artnet news. In an earlier sale in October, Asian buyers contributed 30 percent of total spend, Sotheby’s said.
Orientalist art refers (mostly) to paintings depicting areas such as the Middle East, North Africa, Turkey, and the Gulf, and it has long been an important subsector of the 19th century European painting market. The works are mostly figurative, detailed, colorful paintings depicting regional landscapes and people’s everyday life. The extent to which these portraits are historically truthful is controversial, however, as many artists belonging to this category are known as “armchair orientalists” and paint pictures from their imaginations or are based on romanticized reports of the area.
In fact, the term “orientalist” wearer had a bad rap for many years and was considered politically incorrect in the post-colonial era based on critical analysis by Edward Said. “The Orient was almost a European invention,” Said wrote in his seminal book Orientalism, first published in 1978, “a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences”. Orientalism “connotes the high-handed attitude of the executive branch of 19th and early 20th century European colonialism,” added Said.
Perhaps because of this, in the 1970s commentators thought that [Orientalist] Works were out of date, colonial and condescending, ”said Charles O’Brien, Bonhams’ director of 19th century paintings.
But such a view has gradually changed, noted O’Brien. “Orientalist art is now considered a festival of Middle Eastern culture … As a genre, many of these detailed and beautifully painted works give an incomparable visual insight into the culture.”
Orientalism as an auction category has gone through various stages of development. Sotheby’s said it started offering orientalist artwork in the 1980s and launched an annual sale of this stand-alone category in 2012. Christie’s, on the other hand, offered standalone sales between 1998 and 2009. Then the works were offered along with 19th century European art sales until 2019 and 2020, when Oriental art again became a separate sales category. Oriental art was offered for private sale in 2021. Bonhams didn’t start selling standalone oriental art until 2020.
The price figures compiled from the Artnet database and the sales sums for auctions indicate a similar trend – this is not a particularly high-priced category, but it is stable. Between April 2012 and April 2019, Sotheby’s total sales for the genre ranged from a low of £ 3.4 million in 2017 to a high of £ 6.3 million in 2013.
But sales soared when 40 works from the Najd Collection came to Sotheby’s in October 2019, bringing in £ 33.5 million (all prices include fees unless otherwise stated), a record sum. The public auction of the treasure trove allegedly put together by Saudi billionaire Nasser Al-Rashid set many records for artists in this category. Painting by the French artist Jean-Léon Gérôme from 1870 Horsemen crossing the desert sold for more than £ 3 million, an artist record in British pounds, but only the second highest price after converting the grand total to $ 4 million in US currency based on the exchange rate at the time. The Austrian Ludwig Deutsch achieved with the sale of The tribute Painted in 1909.
In fact, 2019 was without a doubt a great year for orientalist art. Christie’s noted the sale of. set an auction record (in British pounds) for the German painter Gustav Bauernfeind Forecourt of the Umayyad Mosque, Damascus (1890), sold for £ 3.6 million ($ 4.7 million). Bonhams sold Young woman reading (1880) by Ottoman artist Osman Hamdi Bey for a record £ 6.7 million ($ 7.8 million). A similar work by Bey, Young emir is studying (1878), now hangs in the Louvre Abu Dhabi, although the work was not sold when it was auctioned at Sotheby’s London in 2012.
Such a dramatic year put the genre in the spotlight and caused auction houses to rethink their strategy. Sotheby’s now hosts two Orientalist sales per year instead of one annually. The annual grand total in 2020 (including a second part of the Najd collection sale) was £ 6.1 million ($ 7.8 million) and £ 6.3 million ($ 8.3 million) for 2021. And Bonhams launched one in 2020 standalone Orientalist sale totaling £ 709,213 ($ 910,416). The grand total rose to £ 1.97 million ($ 2.6 million) in 2021.
While these prices may seem like a drop from the 2019 high, auction houses believe the market is doing well. “I don’t think the market has gone down. Najd’s sales in 2019-20 resulted in a one-time spike in the market due to the quality of this exceptional group, “said Sotheby’s Piening, emphasizing that total sales in 2021 will be more than a 20 percent jump from £ 5.2million $ 9 million) in 2018.
But long before London got involved, in addition to the museum boom in this region, oriental works had been auctioned at auctions in Doha and Dubai since the late to mid-2000s. The Malaysian brothers Syed Mokhtar Albukhary, chairman of the Albukhary Foundation, and Syed Mohamed Albukhary, Director of the Islamic Art Museum Malaysia, have actively supported the international exposure of art in this genre, including a significant promotion of Gallery of the Islamic World in the British Museum. And in 2019, the French auction house Artcurial, which sells oriental paintings, opened a branch in Marrakech, Morocco.
“This is a very established market, buyers are looking for the best,” said Arne Everwijn, Christie’s European Art Senior Specialist. “There is a lack of offers in this market; Works tend to stay in collections for many decades [or] Generations – most of them will never come back on the market. “
“Our collectors see orientalist paintings as a window into their 19th century legacy – depictions of everyday life in the region at that time. These paintings – which were intended as a celebration in color and atmosphere by artists immersed in the culture – are proud for our collectors, ”said Everwijn.
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