Orientalist art…

[18 Apr 2017]

Orientalism has returned to favour and now occupies a key date in London’s art sales calendar. Artprice looks ahead to Sotheby’s sale on 25 April 2017.

After a golden age in the 19th century, the taste for all-things Oriental lost much of its momentum, and the circle of Western enthusiasts and collectors of Orientalist art shrank very considerably during the 20th century. Only a handful of private collectors like fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent and the American parfumier Oscar de la Renta continued their acquisitions of Orientalist works against the tide of a receding mode. However in recent years the emergence of new collectors from the Middle East has added new momentum to the Orientalist art market. Paris is the historic centre of the Orientalist market with the auctioneer Gros & Delettrez (pioneer of the genre) still active in the segment and Artcurial holding themed sales such as Paris: Marrakech on 29 November 2016 which offered works by Majorelle, Etienne Dinet, Henri Rousseau, amongst others. More recently, London has woken up to this niche, particularly Sotheby’s, which boldly committed to the segment in 2012 and has been organizing annual Orientalist sales ever since. The next Orientalist Sale is scheduled for April 25 with 39 works representing street scenes, prayers and landscapes… romantic visions of the East by late 19th century artists fascinated by Oriental exoticism. They include the Italian Hermann Corrodi, the German Gustav Bauernfeind, the Austrians Rudolf Ernst and highly sought-after Ludwig Deutsch (two results above the million-dollar line), but also a few American artists, including Frederick Arthur Bridgman.

The estimates start at £6,000 for a painting depicting life on the banks of the river Nile signed Théodore FRERE (1814-1888) a great 19th century traveler who has a superb work in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The prices rise quickly to the 10 – 30 thousand pounds range for signatures like Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps, Gustav Bauernfeind and a particularly impressive horse-market scene by Eugène FROMENTIN (1820-1876) (1820-1876). The vitality of this work is expected to elicit bidding beyond £15,000 although his paintings of this size usually fetch less. As any successful Orientalist sale needs at least one headliner, Sotheby’s has obtained a small composition depicting Egyptians in full prayer by the famous French painter Jean-Léon GÉROME (1824-1904) (seven results above the million-dollar line). At Prayer, Cairo (23 x 34 cm) is carrying an estimate of £60,000 – £80,000. However, one of the best works in the sale is signed Benjamin CONSTANT (1845-1902)(1845-1902) with a canvas depicting a splendidly dressed hieratic sentinel. This work was purchased by a private collector in New York last year for around £82,000. It is now being offered for between £120,000 and £150,000. If this target range is reached, it will join the Top 10 auction results for this French traveler who was a great admirer of Delacroix.

Another major work, The ruins of the great temple of Karnak at sunset, is an important painting by the famous Scottish artist David ROBERTS (1796-1864) who set a new auction record at Christie’s last year (30 July 2016) when his Jerusalem, from the South fetched £962,500. The Karnak ruins should generate bidding above £300,000; but the real highlight of the sale is a masterpiece by Georg Emanuel Opiz who is best-known as an excellent miniaturist. The canvas offered is The Arrival of the Mahmal at an Oasis en Route to Mecca, a work that failed to sell in 2010 despite a low estimate of £600,000 (Sotheby’s London, 2 June 2010). This time, it could fetch twice that price.

Unfortunately the most sought-after Orientalist, Eugène DELACROIX (1798-1863), is absent from the catalogue although his work is not particularly rare at auctions nor particularly expensive (despite his reputation). Recent results have involved small oil paintings sold in France for £20,000 to £50,000 on average. That seems a very reasonable price for a piece of history by the most famous Orientalist painter, especially when compared to the prices fetched by certain contemporary artists. For example… the same money could buy a Dom Perignon Balloon Venus by Jeff Koons, the most fashionable artist of our time… but a Balloon Venus (created for the Dom Pérignon brand) has nothing in common with the uniqueness and originality of a small painting by Delacroix; it’s a luxury derivative product edited in 650 copies… A piece of art history looks very underpriced by comparison. Although Orientalist art has recovered some of its momentum, it is not sufficiently fashionable to trigger a major price ascension. However, it remains a healthy market where good deals are still available… probably more so in Paris than in London.