N early forty years ago, one collector had the vision and passion to assemble an exceptional array of works that would portray the society of the Middle East and North Africa over the span of what is now a lost era. This collection - one of the greatest of its kind - consisted of 155 works, the majority of which were exhibited at Sotheby's last autumn in an acclaimed museum-quality show.
Eager to look beyond the confines of their own Western experience, the artists represented in the Najd collection traveled to and spent time in North Africa, the Ottoman Empire and the Middle East to portray first-hand what they saw and experienced. In today's post-Orientalist world, these paintings form an invaluable documentary narrative of regions that have since been transformed and modernized. Since local artists of the time were not working in the same representational style as their Western counterparts, these paintings remain the sole artistic record of life, mores and habitat in that part of the world during the 19th century. For the discerning buyer, Middle Eastern or otherwise, the extraordinarily skilled artistry of these works and their meticulously-portrayed subjects carry a special appeal, combining as they do aesthetics with history.
Painters such as Jean-Léon Gérôme, Ludwig Deutsch and Gustav Bauernfeind were in fact intrepid travelers who braved challenges to capture the essence of local life as they experienced it. Sometimes they would take photographs and 'assemble' their compositions once they returned home. Other times they relied heavily on sketches that had been executed on the spot. But almost always the end result succeeded in relaying the lavish detail of textiles, the grandeur of mosques and doorways, the exotic settings that were tangibly bathed in light, heat and dust. True to this realism, Bauernfeind's Procession in Jaffa arguably vies with his other composition, Market in Jaffa, which sold for £3.7m last October - a masterpiece that exuded the experience of life in Jaffa. In the monumental work here, coming to auction for the first time in over 40 years, the depiction is of a procession - presumably a religious one, with pilgrims on their way to Mecca during the Hajj.
A personal favorite is The Palace Guard which shows a proud and richly decorated sentinel in fine gold slippers, bearing a cluster of gold weapons and standing at a doorway which incorporates many of the architectural elements from the Mosque of Sultan Hassan in Cairo. The striking pose and the attention to detail have the same elegaic quality as an Old Master painting of a royal subject. Arguably a landmark sale in the Orientalist field, this further tranche of the Najd Collection offers a second chance to those who missed out in the first round. We wish them second time lucky!