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Nineteenth-century Orientalism, once a specialised taste, promises to make news in the salerooms in April. In February's auctions quality seemed to trump branding, as several great works by lesser artists outclassed lesser works by the greats

Preview

It is clear that a niche market is moving when works of art considered of limited specialist interest suddenly become cover lots, are given their own dedicated auctions and are so desirable that they sell before they can make it to an exhibition. This is currently the state of play with what is still quaintly termed Orientalist art.

The cover--and top--lot at Bonhams' 19th-century sale on 20 February was Ludwig Deutsch's smallish At the Mosque of 1895, which made [pounds sterling]560,750: a superb example of the brilliant colour, detail and atmosphere that marks out the most admired of these images. Around the same time, dealers Dickinson were hastily reorganising their display for TEFAF Maastricht after three out of their four epic harem scenes by Jean-Leon Gerome sold even before they could get to the Netherlands. Christie's, meanwhile, was preparing to relaunch a stand-alone Orientalist sale in London during Islamic Week, on 29 April, the day before Sotheby's longstanding specialist offering.

In the 1980s, this essentially Western market was transformed by new buyers from the Gulf eager to have some kind of historical record, however contrived, of regions that had a muted tradition of figurative art. Now, according to Claude Piening at Sotheby's, interest has been revived by an influx of collectors from a broader geographical area that includes North Africa and the wider Islamic world. This time there is institutional as well as private buying, and the resources available are even greater.

The star at Christie's is Forecourt of the Umayyad Mosque, Damascus of 1890 (Fig. 1) by Gustav Bauernfeind (1848-1904). Unlike those Orientalists who imagined the exotic climes from the comfort of their Parisian studios, this German artist actually settled in the Middle East. It is relevant that he had first trained as an architect, for Bauernfeind specialised in cityscapes and views of the historic sanctuaries of the Levant and Holy Land in which every stone, tile, textile and texture is recorded in meticulous detail. After first seeing the Great Mosque in 1888 he returned to make drawings nearly every day he was in Damascus, investing not only time but money, in the form of bribes to wardens and payment to models. His similarly monumental view of the gate of the mosque fetched 2.5m [pounds sterling] back in 2008; this forecourt scene comes with expectations of around 3m [pounds sterling].

A no less obsessive desire for verisimilitude informs Gerome's otherwise quite different Rider and his Steed in the Desert. For his Orientalist paintings, the French artist (1824-1904) relied on both oil sketches and photographs, and this canvas has something of a cinematic quality. While he often repeated subjects, this scene, the lone Bedouin comforting his exhausted mount, is unique--man and beast bonded in their struggle against the desert's implacable heat. This highlight of Sotheby's 30 April sale was exhibited at both the World's Fair in Vienna in 1873 and the Exposition Universelle in Paris five years later. Estimate 1m [pounds sterling]-1.5m [pounds sterling].

Chinese export porcelain, in contrast, was made in the East for consumption by the West. On 10 April, Christie's New York offers the first tranche of wares from an exceptional collection amassed over 40 years by a Latin American collector and valued at over $6m. Subsequent sales will be held in London in July and Paris in November. Here, the focus of this wide-ranging holding is 30 or so oversized jars and 'soldier vases' known as tibores in both Spain and the Spanish New World, the word providing the name for this Tibor Collection. It includes some big, bold colourful porcelains, among them a pair of tibores of around 1740 in famille rose enamels, each bearing a large urn of flowers under an unusual bright blue collar and the arms of Philip V of Spain (estimate $500,000-$700,000).

Pre-Columbian art--including Mezcala stone temple models and figures, Mayan jade and Sican gold--takes a bow at Christie's Paris on 9 April, with Oceania and particularly New Ireland in focus the following day. The excitement here has been the emergence from an old German collection of a previously unknown Uli figure that once belonged to the film director Fritz Lang (Fig. 3). He is believed to have given it to the Hamburg sculptor and collector Friedrich Wield, perhaps in return for help with set decorations.

Unlike other statues from New Ireland in the Bismarck archipelago, east of Papua New Guinea--these ancestor figures were not destroyed after their ritual use but stored in the rafters of houses until they were needed again; hence the black patina of smoke and layers of pigment, indicating a rich ritual life after creation. Some 250 Ulis are known, most of them collected in 1904-14; this is one of 10 that feature a giant figure with arms raised subjugating a very much smaller one--here cowed beneath him in a position of surrender and with the other's mighty penis resting on his head. Around the former's neck hangs the kind of rope used for ritual strangulations, which activated such figures and endowed them with their power (300,000 [euro]-500,000 [euro]).

Tina Modotti (1896-1942) was an Italianborn American actress, photographer and revolutionary political activist, and photographs taken by her and her lover Edward Weston in Mexico are among the highlights of the impressive group of photographs from the Susie Tompkins Buell Collection offered at Phillips New York on 4 April. Abstract, formalist works take centre stage, with the curving grids of Weston's Circus Tent of 1924 ($400,000-$600,000) and Modotti's ethereal Telephone Wires, taken the following year ($250,000-$350,000). Buell, co-founder of the Esprit and North Face clothing brands, has been a champion of photography by women. In 1991 she made market history by paying $165,000 for Modotti's Roses, Mexico of 1924 (Fig. 2), then a record for any photograph at auction. Now that print returns to the block with an estimate of $300,000-$500,000.

In Milan on 3 April, Christie's is offering Umberto Boccioni's portrait of his friend Betty Baer with her small daughter Nora, painted in 1909 in a Divisionist style that heralded the dynamism of his Futurist works. It has remained in the family ever since (350,000[euro]-450,000 [euro]). In New York on 29 April, the auction house also offers 'Masterpieces in Miniature; Ancient Engraved Gems Formerly in the G. Sangiorgi Collection'. A highlight of these intaglios and cameos is a Roman black chalcedony intaglio portrait of the famously beautiful youth Antinous, from around the second century and set in a Renaissance gold mount ($300,000-$500,000).

Review

After I had bewailed the madness of a market in which the auction houses could slap any fantastical estimate on to a work of art and find someone prepared to pay it, the February Impressionist and Modern art sales in London suggested this is no longer the case. There were sound, even strong results for good paintings appropriately estimated, but plenty of casualties elsewhere.

This was particularly evident at Christie's, where works from two collections provided the backbone of the evening sale on 27 February. Presented under the name 'An Adventurous Spirit' was an anonymous group of six paintings, five of them guaranteed, which provided the sale with its two new auction records. Paul Signac's dazzling, sun-drenched --and exceptional--pointillist Le Port au soleil couchant, Opus 236 (Saint-Tropez) of 1892, illustrated on these pages in February, sold above its estimate to set a world auction record for the artist at 19.8m [pounds sterling].

Another success was Gustave Caillebotte's Chemin montant of 1881 (Fig. 1). Painted at Trouville on the Normandy coast, it is an inland landscape with two fashionable figures out strolling in the summer sun. This engaging, classic Impressionist canvas exceeded expectations, changing hands for a record 16.7m [pounds sterling]. Like the Signac, it showed that a masterpiece by an artist of the second rank is far better than a mediocre example by an artist of the first. Of this group, only the rather weak Vuillard failed to make its pre-sale estimate.

'Hidden Treasures', a section of 23 'seminal' works from an American collection, offered without guarantee, painted a completely different picture. The problem here was too many of the right artists being represented by the wrong pictures. Two works by Matisse were particular shockers, and the two Monets--studies of waterlilies and irises, and both stamped with the artist's studio mark--hardly better, and bearing ludicrously optimistic estimates. The market this time chose not to believe the hype, and 11 of the works failed to sell. Even the top lot of the sale somehow disappointed although, to be fair, it is not easy to find the greatest of Cezanne's still lifes on the market. Nature morte depeches etpoires sold on target for 21.2m [pounds sterling].

Of the various-owner properties also included in the sale, Degas's small Danseuses dans une salle d'exercice (Trois Danseuses) of 1873, which had descended in the distinguished Behague and Ganay collections, evidently--and quite rightly--did charm. An apparently casual glimpse of dancers at an everyday rehearsal, radically cropped and making a feature of the facades and roofs of Paris beyond the studio window, it is a tour de force of lusciously painted muted greys and buff, set off by touches of brilliant colour. Expected to fetch around 1m [pounds sterling], it sold for 4.2m [pounds sterling].

Despite the failures, the evening sale still achieved the second highest total for the category in London, 190.7m [pounds sterling], albeit bolstered by a 43.6m [pounds sterling] contribution from yet another highly successful auction of 'The Art of the Surreal'. Stealing the show--inevitably--was Magritte, and his optical trickery with bowler-hatted man, Le Lieu commun (also illustrated in these pages in February), which sold on target for 18.4m [pounds sterling]. Of the 34 lots, only a Picabia and an Arp were bought in.

At Sotheby's the evening before, there were relatively few major consignments. In this slim, 24-lot Impressionist & Modern offering, the atypical fared well--Egon Schiele's close-up, square-format fishing boat, Triestiner Fischerboot of 1912 (Fig. 2), sold over estimate for 10.7m [pounds sterling]. The expected top lot, a Monet of the Doge's Palace, but again not quite the example that one would first choose, sold comfortably mid-estimate for 27-5m [pounds sterling]. Magritte again led the evening's Surrealist Art sale with an auction debut for L'Etoile du matin of 1938 5.3m [pounds sterling]), while Picabia's Atrata of around 1929 fetched a new record for one of the artist's transparency paintings (3.7m [pounds sterling]). The evening's total was 87.7m [pounds sterling].

February had opened with the last of the Masters Week sales in New York, and saw the conclusion of one of the strongest iterations of Master Drawings New York. Appalling weather has often marred this gallery event --and indeed the January sales in general, one of the reasons why Christie's moved its Classic Week to May. With no such problems this year, the event also benefited from an expansion to include sculpture and paintings dealers, who also seemed to fare well. Tomasso Brothers, for instance, sold a highly detailed limewood relief by the French sculptor Aubert-Henri-Joseph Parent (1753-1835), a still life of 1794 bearing the Wettin coat of arms. A UK collector claimed it for around $120,000.

Strong attendance from US museum curators boosted sales. Stephen Ongpin sold four drawings to three US institutions, among them Burne-Jones pencil studies for The Golden Stairs (1876-80). He also sold to new clients, in all selling a broad range of work for a total exceeding $900,000.

Classic Week focused on women artists, and the 19th Century European Art sale at Sotheby's New York on 1 February found some strong prices for its three trailblazers: Rosa Bonheur, Virginie Demont-Breton and the Paris-based American Elizabeth Jane Gardner --although the prices for the last two were eclipsed by those of the father of one, Jules Breton, and husband of the other, William Bouguereau. The third work to fetch more than $im was Sir Frank Dicksee's Yseult of 1901, a subject inspired by Malory's LeMorte d'Arthur. Executed in rich ruby reds and gold, and encased in a Celtic lyre-shaped frame, this evocative piece of late Romanticism was one of the paintings that had passed from the collection of the New Zealand merchant Wolf Harris to that of the famous Indian cricketing maharaja, Ranjitsinhji (1.2m [pounds sterling]).

It was, surprisingly, the inaugural edition of Frieze Los Angeles (15-17 February) that bore the brunt of the bad weather. After the sweltering interiors of Frieze New York in May, California provided torrential downpours, but here at least visitors stayed and dug deep into their pockets. The undoubted commercial success of this debut was a tribute to the hard work and professionalism of brand Frieze and its Hollywood partners, but reports suggest that most of the big-ticket sales were made to the usual big buyers.

Caption: 1. Forecourt of the Umayyad Mosque, Damascus, 1890, Gustav Bauernfeind (1848-1904), oil on panel, 120.8 x 92.2cm. Christie's London (around 3m [pounds sterling])

Caption: 2. Roses, Mexico, 1925, Tina Modotti (1896-1942), platinum or palladium print, 19.1 x 21.6cm. Phillips New York ($300,000-$500,000)

Caption: 3. Uli statue, 19th/early 20th century, New Ireland, Papua New Guinea, wood, snail shell, ht 133cm. Christie's Paris (300,000 [euro]-500,000 [euro])

Caption: 1. Chemin montant, 1881, Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1894), oil on canvas, 100.2 x 125.3cm, Christie's London, 16.7m [pounds sterling]

Caption: 2. Triestiner Fischerboot, 1912, Egon Schiele (1890-1918), oil and pencil on canvas, 70 x 70cm. Sotheby's London, 10.7m [pounds sterling]

Caption: 3. The Wettin Still-Life, 1794, Aubert-Henri-Joseph Parent (1753-1835), limewood, ht 27.5cm. Tomasso Brothers, around $120,000
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Title Annotation:Orientalism in art auctions
Author:Moore, Susan
Publication:Apollo
Date:Apr 1, 2019
Words:2333
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