T his spring at Sothebys we find several museum-quality masterpieces that confirm the calibre of works to be found in regional markets. The carefully curated 20th Century Art/Middle East sale, open for bidding from 22-30 March, features approximately 50 works catering to the discerning eye. Showcasing the world-class nature of iconic works that have now come to be associated with the best of Arab and Iranian Modernism, these masterpieces are increasingly sought after by mainstream collectors. Just over 14 years since the start of the auction market for Middle Eastern art, buyers continue to show their enthusiasm for the quality that has been recognized by institutions, curators, and collectors. It is no accident then, that some of these trophy works are beginning to be spotted in evening sales.
One such masterpiece appears in Modern Renaissance: A Cross-Category Sale on March 25. Iranian artist Bahman Mohassess’s 1977 Minotauro sulla riva del mare is a rare and hugely important work by the artist that epitomises both his powerfully expressive style and his fascination with the minotaur as a mystical creature. An ancient symbol of carnality and frustrated power, the mythical beast provided the artist with a shadowy alter-ego and connected him with an art historical lineage that stretched from Ancient Greece right up to the 20th century. This superb painting typifies the best of the artist’s work in this style, and is being offered jointly by the Bruni family and the Mohassess Estate in recognition of both families’ shared connection with a remarkable and enduring work.
Of similar stature are two fresh-to-the-market sculptures offered in the 20th Century Art/Middle East sale itself, by beloved Egyptian pioneer Mahmoud Mokhtar. The artworks were bought directly from the artist from by illustrious collector and renaissance man Hafez Afifi Pacha – an influential politician and the first Egyptian delegate to the United Nations – and have remained in the same family for decades, unseen in public until now.
Embedded in Egypt’s cultural sphere, Afifi was one of Mokhtar’s great patrons – funding him for his most famous sculpture Egypt Awakened, also known as Nahdat Misr, a triumphant representation of Egypt’s past and present, as well as founding the Friends of Mahmoud Mokhtar Foundation after the artist’s death.
The first sculpture, titled Ibn El Balad was Mokhtar’s university graduation project. Inscribed in 1910, it was among the very first sculptures he created, and marks the pivotal moment that he evolved into the sculptor he is renowned as today. The second, Arous El Nil (bust) is a beautiful Pharaonic head of a woman, a marriage between Ancient Egyptian aesthetics and Art Deco. It is the bust of a majestic full-length sculpture in the collection of Paris’ Musée du Jeu de Paume.
These outstanding works remind us not only of the glorious civilizations from which they hail, but also of the importance of the Modernist movement in Arab and Iranian cultures. The fortunate collectors who will henceforth become the custodians of these treasures can rest assured of having played their part in their nation’s art history.