The 19th century European artists who created them found a ready-made market in Europe, driven at the time by an appetite for discovery that swept across the continent.
Fast forward to today, and much has changed.
Many serious buyers are now based in the East, not West. According to Blouin Art Info, close to 70% of sales of Orientalist art at Sotheby’s since 2010 have been to buyers from Turkey, Asia and the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region, making this currently the largest purchasing group in the field.
The general decline in value of 19th century pictures has meant expectations have had to be tempered but, on the whole, Orientalist art has managed to stay relatively bullish – thanks to demand from Middle Eastern buyers in particular.
For some of these collectors, the pictures fill a niche in the historical record. The Islamic edict against figurative imagery meant that local artists were prohibited from producing equivalent scenes.
Dubai gallery boost
The Orientalist Sale held on April 24 was the seventh annual outing at Sotheby’s London (25/20/12% buyer’s premium) since 2012 and was offered alongside three other Islamic and Middle Eastern art auctions held in the capital during the same week.
According to Sotheby’s, the series produced a 44% increase in the number of buyers from the UAE, suggesting its new gallery in Dubai, which opened just over a year ago, has helped bring in new blood.
Business was solid with £4.1m changing hands, comfortably within pre-sale expectations of £3.5m-5.12m, with a sell-through rate that hovered around 80%.
Eight of the top 10 lots, including the top three, were secured by a single anonymous institution. Institutional buying has been a key factor in this field, with Orientalist art collections found in museums across the Middle East, including the Louvre Abu Dhabi and Doha’s Museum of Orientalist Art.
Freshness was also a significant component to the success of the sale’s top earner – a Moroccan view by the American painter Edwin Lord Weeks (1849-1903). The picture, painted during Weeks’ third trip to Morocco in 1879, came from the Portland Museum of Art in Maine where it had been since 1914.
Depicting the spectacular city gates in Rabat, the 2ft 4in x 3ft 3in (72 x 99cm) oil on canvas sold above its £200,000-300,000 guide at £470,000 – a top-three price for the artist at auction.
Morocco’s imposing city gates also form the backdrop to several major French Orientalist works, including Eugène Delacroix’s Moulay Abd-er- Rahman, Sultan of Morocco Leaving the Palace in Meknès with his Entourage, which hangs in the Musée des Augustins, Toulouse.
Another top performer at Sotheby’s was Paul Joanowits’ (1859-1957) 18 x 14in (46 x 35cm) oil on panel of two armed bashi-bazouks – the Ottoman army’s irregulars who hailed from lands across the Ottoman empire, from Egypt to the Balkans.
The Serbian artist painted all manner of subjects from the Orient but his meticulously observed Montenegrin and Albanian subjects, particularly of warriors and bashi-bazouks, are prized on the secondary market. This example, acquired by a ‘distinguished’ private collector in 2004 from London gallery MacConnal-Mason, more than doubled its top guide to sell for £380,000 – a comfortable new record for the artist at auction.
From the same source came another artist record, for Austrian artist Raphael von Ambros (1845-95). His wonderfully detailed 15 x 18½in (38 x 47cm) oil on panel of a baker’s shop in Cairo sold towards its upper estimate at £140,000.
Inspired by the 19th century French taste for Orientalism and Turquerie was a 3ft x 2ft 4in (92 x 71cm) oil on panel by Italian painter Cesare Dell’Acqua (1821-1905) of a lavishly dressed Ottoman woman. Estimated at £60,000-80,000, it was knocked down at £330,000.
At the top of any serious collector’s wish-list is French artist Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904).
Two typical entries by the painter featured in the sale, both institution buys: £240,000 for the larger of the duo titled A Sultan at Prayer and £130,000 for an oil on panel of an Albanian bashi-bazouk.