The hunt for mod­ern art

A lost mas­ter­piece by Turk­ish artist Fahrel­nissa Zeid was found hang­ing on the wall of a US fur­ni­ture com­pany. Its dis­cov­ery shows the surge in de­mand for mod­ern Arab and Turk­ish art, writes Melissa Gron­lund

The National - News - The Review - - Front Page - Melissa Gron­lund is the au­thor of Con­tem­po­rary Art and Dig­i­tal Cul­ture (Rout­ledge). She lives in Abu Dhabi.

The Turk­ish artist Fahrel­nissa Zeid made a num­ber of enor­mous can­vases de­pict­ing ex­plo­sive cos­mogo­nies, but one seemed par­tic­u­larly im­por­tant to her: To­wards a Sky, painted in 1953, was one that she kept a pic­ture of by her bed­side. But from 1957 to 2012, the where­abouts of this paint­ing were com­pletely un­known.

“The last we had heard it was hang­ing in the gar­den of Lord’s Gallery in Lon­don,” says Elif Bayo­glu, a Sotheby’s con­sul­tant who worked on bring­ing the paint­ing to auc­tion. Then it dis­ap­peared.

It re-emerged 55 years later when the own­ers got in touch with Sotheby’s to dis­cuss a sale. It had been hang­ing in the cor­po­rate col­lec­tion of an of­fice fur­ni­ture com­pany in Michi­gan, its long can­vas float­ing in the atrium of the com­pany’s pyra­mid-shaped devel­op­ment cen­tre.

“This has been the high­light of my ca­reer,” says Bayo­glu. “Its size, the in­ten­sity of the com­po­si­tion, the vi­brancy of the colours – and the fact that it had be­come a huge mys­tery.”

The work will go un­der the ham­mer at Sotheby’s 20th Mid­dle East sale in April in Lon­don with an es­ti­mate of £550,000 to £650,000 (Dh2,457m to Dh2,904m). Then, if the new owner agrees, it will go to the Tate Mod­ern in June, where the Lon­don mu­seum is mount­ing a much-an­tic­i­pated ret­ro­spec­tive of the artist’s work. (A true-to-scale re­pro­duc­tion of the art­work is on view at Sotheby’s new ex­hi­bi­tion space in Dubai.)

For the can­vas, which ex­perts be­lieve Zeid painted in Paris in 1953 be­fore re­turn­ing to Jor­dan – she had mar­ried into the royal fam­ily there – it has been a rapid as­cent from ob­scu­rity to in­ter­na­tional promi­nence. “They didn’t re­alise how im­por­tant it was,” says Bayo­glu, re­fer­ring to the Steel­case fur­ni­ture com­pany, in whose size­able col­lec­tion the paint­ing had hung.

While ex­tra­or­di­nary in it­self, the sale also high­lights the role that the art mar­ket plays in bring­ing to light ma­jor works of 20th-cen­tury Mid­dle Eastern art. Buoyed by a huge de­mand for mod­ern Arab, Turk­ish and Iranian work, auc­tion houses and deal­ers are rac­ing to un­cover still avail­able, lost, or un­known works of the pe­riod.

The hunt has been on since the mid-2000s, when 20th-cen­tury Mid­dle Eastern art be­came sought-af­ter on the mar­ket side and in­sti­tu­tion­ally. The num­ber of ma­jor ex­hi­bi­tions fo­cus­ing on the work has spiked even in the past five years: the Le­banese sculp­tor and painter Saloua Raouda Chou­cair at Tate Mod­ern (2013), the Iranian ab­strac­tion­ist Monir Shahroudy Far­man­far­ma­ian at the Guggen­heim in New York (2015), the Le­banese writer and painter Etel Ad­nan at the Ser­pen­tine Gal­leries in Lon­don (2016), the Modernist hold­ings of Shar­jah’s Bar­jeel Art Foun­da­tion at the Whitechapel in Lon­don (2015–16), and Egyp­tian Sur­re­al­ism at the Cen­tre Pom­pi­dou in Paris (2016), to name a re­cent few. Auc­tion prices are also climb­ing: a 1962 paint­ing by Zeid, Break of Atom and Vege­tal Life, sold for US$2.3 mil­lion (Dh8.4m) at Christie’s in 2013, while in Oc­to­ber last year, Bon­hams sold a work by the Egyp­tian painter Mah­moud Said for £1.2m. These are still short of the in­cred­i­ble amounts com­manded by 20th-cen­tury west­ern work, but they’ve risen quickly. And, set­ting them all into one cat­e­gory of “Mid­dle Eastern” art rather than the pre­dom­i­nantly na­tional scenes that ex­isted be­fore, the Gulf has emerged as the cen­tre for their sale: Christie’s set up a per­ma­nent space in Dubai in 2005, and Bon­hams did so in 2008; Sotheby’s es­tab­lished a pres­ence in Doha in 2008, and this year in Dubai. The fair Art Dubai, which ends to­day, was launched in 2007.

“Mod­ern art of this re­gion is not a new ‘dis­cov­ery’ for the Arab world,” says Salwa Mik­dadi, a lead­ing scholar and cu­ra­tor of Arab art and vis­it­ing as­so­ciate professor at New York Univer­sity Abu Dhabi.

“The art was val­ued and ap­pre­ci­ated by a lim­ited num­ber of peo­ple, com­pared to the in­ter­est in the art to­day. A large num­ber of mod­ern artists were art teach­ers; they had di­rect ac­cess to the public through ed­u­ca­tion, how­ever, with­out a mar­ket and with few col­lec­tors.”

The rea­sons for the uptick on the mar­ket are many: in the Gulf, greater art ed­u­ca­tion and ap­pre­ci­a­tion has led many Arabs to seek out and col­lect their own art his­tory. From a west­ern per­spec­tive, the in­ter­est in the Mid­dle East is part of an over­due ac­knowl­edge­ment of the art world be­yond Europe and the United States. And the art mar­ket over­all has ex­pe­ri­enced a tremen­dous ex­pan­sion in the past 25 years.

At the same time, one prob­lem with what auc­tion houses call the “sup­ply” is that there is in­com­plete in­for­ma­tion with re­gards to 20th­cen­tury Mid­dle Eastern work. “Un­like the in­ter­na­tional mar­ket,” says Masa Al Kutoubi, a spe­cial­ist and head of sale at Christie’s, “the Mid­dle Eastern sec­ondary mar­ket is still very new and in some ways un­charted ter­ri­tory. There are so many artists we don’t know about be­cause there is not a lot of lit­er­a­ture and doc­u­men­ta­tion avail­able. That makes our job – of find­ing these art­works – even more in­ter­est­ing and rel­e­vant.”

While most of the ma­jor fig­ures in Ara­bic art his­tory have al­ready been bought by pri­vate col­lec­tors or mu­se­ums, many auc­tion spe­cial­ists and deal­ers are do­ing the kind of pri­mary re­search into past artists and art scenes that would be typ­i­cally ac­com­plished by art his­to­ri­ans. In some re­spects, says Wil­liam Lawrie, who helped es­tab­lish Christie’s out­post in Dubai and who now co-di­rects the Dubai gallery Lawrie Shabibi, “the mar­ket has raced ahead of academia”.

“We read through what­ever books, ar­ti­cles, and cat­a­logues we can get hold of,” ex­plains Al Kutoubi. “We visit a lot of pri­vate homes to ex­am­ine, ad­mire and eval­u­ate col­lec­tions as well as in­di­vid­ual works. Word of mouth is such a strong suit for Arabs and Ira­ni­ans. There’s a lot of gen­er­ous and will­ing shar­ing of in­for­ma­tion.”

For fam­i­lies or in­di­vid­u­als with sud­denly valu­able works, auc­tions are an ac­ces­si­ble way to sell them, par­tic­u­larly in a field as closed as the art mar­ket. Al Kutoubi, for ex­am­ple, was re­cently ap­proached by a for­mer Iranian film star, Mary Apick, who has been liv­ing in Los Angeles since the Iranian Rev­o­lu­tion. Her house in LA be­came a fo­cal point for the Iranian cul­tural di­as­pora, and she is now sell­ing some of the work she ac­quired dur­ing that pe­riod. Through this re­la­tion­ship with Apick, Al Kutoubi placed the paint­ing Sa­hou Fas­sa­hah (1984) by Charles Hos­sein Zen­der­oudi, an es­tab­lished Iranian artist whose work is now hard to come by, at Christie’s where it goes on sale to­day.

Steel­case, which owned the lost Zeid paint­ing, ap­proached Sotheby’s when they be­gan to deac­ces­sion their col­lec­tion, due to the auc­tion house’s his­tory sell­ing the princess’s work. Bayo­glu flew out to Steel­case’s head­quar­ters in Grand Rapids to see the paint­ing, and then set to work au­then­ti­cat­ing it and es­tab­lish­ing its prove­nance. “We knew of the ex­is­tence of the work be­cause of the photo she kept by her bed­side. It was ex­hib­ited at the ICA in Lon­don in 1954 – it was so tall

that they had to roll up one third of the paint­ing,” Bayo­glu ex­plains. It was then at Lord’s Gallery in 1957, and Steel­case ac­quired it in 1987. What hap­pened in the in­ter­ven­ing 20 years is still un­known.

The per­cep­tion of mod­ern Arab art his­tory as un­known ter­ri­tory partly owes to the fact there are few mu­se­ums where a nar­ra­tive of the pe­riod is pub­licly vis­i­ble. The Mu­seum of Mod­ern Egyp­tian Art in Cairo has a strong col­lec­tion of Egyp­tian Modernism – Cairo was the cru­cible for Arab Modernism – but has not had the re­sources to prop­erly ex­hibit its works, and is cur­rently closed. The Sur­sock Mu­seum in Beirut, which fo­cuses on Le­banese mod­ern and con­tem­po­rary art, only re­cently re­opened af­ter an eight-year hia­tus. The largest col­lec­tion of Arab 20th-cen­tury work is at Mathaf in Doha, which is built around the per­sonal col­lec­tion of Sheikh Has­san bin Mo­hamed bin Ali Al Thani (later be­queathed to Qatar Mu­se­ums), but the vast ma­jor­ity of the work is not on view.

Sul­tan Sooud Al Qassemi, who has amassed a ma­jor col­lec­tion of Mid­dle Eastern 20th-cen­tury work for his pri­vate col­lec­tion and his Bar­jeel Art Foun­da­tion, has de­lib­er­ately made his hold­ings more pub­licly avail­able, putting images of them on­line and show­ing them at other in­sti­tu­tions. “Mu­se­ums and col­lec­tors are still re­luc­tant to put their art on­line for var­i­ous rea­sons,” he says. “Na­tional archives that may con­tain in­ter­views with artists have not been digi­tised and made ac­ces­si­ble to the public, mak­ing it dif­fi­cult to con­duct re­search.”

Mik­dadi con­curs. “The re­sources are there,” she says. “They are just not digi­tised.” And while it is roughly true to say that the his­tory of Mid­dle Eastern art is still be­ing writ­ten, this dis­counts ma­jor work by schol­ars such as Mik­dadi, Nada Shabout and Sil­via Naef. In­deed, largely be­cause of lan­guage is­sues – much is writ­ten in Ara­bic or French – and the need for a fast turnover, there can be a ten­dency to rely on the scant in­for­ma­tion that ex­ists on­line. An­other prob­lem with ac­cess­ing Mid­dle Eastern art his­tory of the past cen­tury is that, be­cause of the wars in the re­gion, many works have been de­stroyed, and col­lec­tions dis­persed. “So much was lost un­der the US oc­cu­pa­tion in Iraq,” says Ba­haa Abu­daya, for­merly a cu­ra­tor at Mathaf who now teaches Arab mod­ern and con­tem­po­rary art his­tory at the Paris-Sor­bonne Univer­sity Abu Dhabi. Iraq’s na­tional mu­se­ums were ran­sacked and many of their works later il­le­gally traded hands. “Now this is hap­pen­ing with works from Egypt,” he con­tin­ues. “You see a lot com­ing on to the in­ter­na­tional mar­ket.” More­over, Abu­daya adds, the lack of ex­per­tise makes the mar­ket more vul­ner­a­ble to fakes and stolen goods, as few peo­ple have the knowl­edge to au­then­ti­cate works.

This is an­other rea­son why auc­tion houses play an im­por­tant role: they are a safe bet. “It’s a jury of thou­sands,” says Lawrie. For ex­am­ple, in 2015, Christie’s of­fered a ver­sion of Ja­mal Al Ma­hamel III (Camel of Bur­dens), a 1973 paint­ing of a man car­ry­ing the city of Jerusalem on his back by the Pales­tinian artist Suleiman Man­sour, who made a num­ber of copies of the work. Muam­mar Qaddafi is said to have bought the sec­ond ver­sion, from 1975, and that one is be­lieved to have been de­stroyed in a 1986 US air strike on Libya.

Christie’s listed its ver­sion as the ear­li­est avail­able – with a price tag to match – un­til a col­lec­tor came for­ward from Lon­don with the orig­i­nal; the Christie’s ver­sion was ac­tu­ally from 2005. Christie’s dropped its es­ti­mate, along with an an­nounce­ment say­ing they were de­lighted the ear­li­est work had now been found.

“Auc­tions re­ally bring ex­perts out of the wood­work,” Lawrie says. Though a word of cau­tion: auc­tions, and the mar­ket, can find the works, but can’t con­tex­tu­alise them; there re­mains a press­ing need for proper re­search done in archives.

Fahrel­nissa Zeid. Cour­tesy es­tate of Fahrel­nissa Zeid

Cour­tesy Christie’s, Ali Haider / EPA; cour­tesy Bon­hams

From top, To­wards a Sky is Fahrel­nissa Zeid’s sec­ond largest work; Ja­mal Al Ma­hamel III by Pales­tinian artist Suleiman Man­sour was auc­tioned by Christie’s in 2015; Egyp­tian painter Mah­moud Said’s L’île Heureuse.

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