The owner of the picture, Los Angeles based artist Jon Swihart, had purchased it at auction in 1999 for $6325 (£4048) when it had been catalogued as Circle of Jean-Léon Gérôme.
He felt sure that it could be a work by the artist and eventually enlisted the help of the BBC programme Fake or Fortune? presenters Fiona Bruce and art dealer Philip Mould help track down its provenance and investigate the work. Following research, Emily Weeks, the art historian and acknowledged expert on Gérôme, authenticated the work.
Painted in 1858, At Prayer has now been consigned to auction, with an estimate of £80,000-120,000, and a highlight in Sotheby’s The Orientalist Sale which opens for bidding from October 20.
Claude Piening, Sotheby’s head of 19th century European paintings in London, said: “I love the immediacy of this painting, executed as it was not long after Gérôme’s first trip to Egypt in 1856 and his impressions of his travels were still fresh in his mind. It is small work, but has tremendous impact. That this work has been rightfully re-instated into Gérôme’s oeuvre is testament to its exceptional quality.”
Sotheby’s said the picture is a fascinating insight into Gérôme's working methods and artistic licence. Based on a pencil sketch by Gérôme held by the Cooper Art Gallery in Barnsley (a key piece of crucial evidence in the Fake or Fortune? investigation) and the location of the pulpit or minbar has been identified as that of Qaytbay in the Northern Cemetery in Cairo, which Gérôme would have visited.
The model for At Prayer can be found in a further work by Gérôme in the Orientalist Sale: Prayer in the House of the Arnaut Chief, painted in 1857 (which has an estimate of £100,000-150,000).
The painting depicts nine men and a boy in prayer in a domestic interior in Cairo, including seven Arnauts, or bashi bazouks (irregulars in the Ottoman army), wearing their characteristic white kilts. The figure in question appears as one of the bashi bazouks, once more raising his hands in prayer.
In 2019, Sotheby’s set the auction record for the artist with Riders Crossing the Desert, which sold for £2.6m (£3.1m including buyer's premium) as reported in ATG.