'A Visit: A Harem Interior' by Henriette Browne – £650,000 at Sotheby's.

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Sotheby’s (25/20/13.9% buyer’s premium) reported that for its 16 online sales from March 15-April 15, 50% of registrants were first-time bidders at the firm. Many of these were younger people and half of all bids that have been made were placed on mobile devices.

One explanation given is that people simply have more time on their hands to surf the internet for items they like and are discovering online auctions via search engines. New bidders may also believe this is a chance to buy at lower than normal prices during this period.

While all this would not be so surprising if you were talking about areas such as jewellery and watches, it will raise more of an eyebrow to learn that it seems to be occurring for more traditional areas such as 19th century Orientalist art.

Sotheby’s latest Orientalist sale – converted to run as an online timed sale that closed on April 7 – reported one third of all bidders were under 40. Furthermore, bidding from the Middle East and North Africa accounted for half the activity.

Both figures were significantly up on normal levels at these annual events.

At Sotheby’s 16 online sales from March 16-April 15, 50% of registrants were first-time bidders at the firm

Artist rarity

The performance of the top lot was also something of coup for the 19th century art category in general, achieving the highest price for any object sold at a UK auction during the lockdown so far.

The work was a rarity: a painting of a harem interior by a female artist.

While fanciful depictions of the harem are a common sight at every Orientalist art auction – many male artists painted imagined views of this ‘forbidden space’ with exotic and voyeuristic undertones which critics would say betrayed a rather limited outlook – a painting by a woman of such a scene is almost unheard of.

The oil on canvas by Henriette Browne (1829-1901) was painted following a brief visit she made to Constantinople with her diplomat husband. The 11½ x 16in (40 x 41cm) work was in fact a smaller version of one of two harem paintings she exhibited at the Paris Salon of 1861 based on scenes she had witnessed. In this case the subject was the visit of one harem to another.

Browne, who had adopted an English professional pseudonym (her real name was Sophie De Saux), could visit spaces off limits to male artists. As such, she captured the harem devoid of the usual overtly sexual connotations and instead focused on its polite rituals.

One group of women, lightly veiled with yashmaks for their journey, ascend to their hostess’ plain and sparsely furnished apartment. They have brought their own cushions. Only one of the assembled ladies makes an effort to greet them; the leading visitor makes the conventional salutory gesture of touching her forehead, lips and chest with her right hand. A child appears to clutch her mother’s hand for protection.

Works by Browne appear at auction from time to time although the vast majority are Western genre scenes or portraits.

This painting was an entirely altogether different commercial proposition. It was also in good original condition with UV inspection revealing some areas of residual varnish but no visible signs of restoration.

Against an estimate of £50,000-70,000, no fewer than 43 bids were placed and it eventually sold at £650,000 – an auction record for an Orientalist painting by a female artist.

Senior director at Sotheby’s Claude Piening said: “I think the price was driven by the painting’s rarity on two counts: firstly being by a female artist painted at a time when very few women Orientalists were active; and secondly, by a woman artist who had actually travelled to Constantinople, visited the harem, and was in a position to describe this complex and sophisticated social space for what it really was, in an objective, empathetic manner.”

Sotheby’s said it could not release any details about the buyer.

The result helped boost the sale total to an overall £2.9m including premium, with 31 of the 55 lots meeting their reserve (56%).

Simoni makes his entrance

Another lot that set an artist’s record was a view of Tlemcen in northwestern Algeria by Italian artist Gustavo Simoni (1846-1926).

Depicting the gate of the Sidi Boumediene Mosque, the watercolour measured a 4ft x 2ft 5in (1.21m by 74cm) and was laid onto a sheet of cardboard.

Dating from 1890, it was a substantial size for a work on paper and, although the sheet was slightly undulating and browned and had areas of craquelure as well as a few repairs, is was said to be in good condition overall and ready to hang behind glass in its decorative gilt frame.


'Gate of the Sidi Boumediene Mosque, Tlemcen' by Gustavo Simoni – £95,000 at Sotheby’s.

Simoni was something of a specialist in depicting animated scenes of large groups of people and this subject with a preacher on the steps of the gate was a vintage example. He trained in Rome as a watercolourist but later purchased a house in Tlemcen. His Algerian scenes met with high acclaim in his day and they remain his most commercial subjects, including among north African buyers.

This example also had strong topographical interest with the finely executed details and colours of the main entrance – something that lifted the work as the mosque itself, which dates back to 1339, was an important centre of the spread of tasawwuf, the ‘soul’ of Islam, in the Maghreb region.

Estimated at £20,000-30,000, again it was a picture that attracted strong bids once the auction opened and, after a total of 26 bids, it sold at £95,000. While an oil on canvas by Simoni titled The halt of the caravan was unsold against a £100,000-150,000 estimate at Sotheby’s landmark sale of the Najd collection of Orientalist art in October 2019, the price here not only extended the artist’s upper limit but was also made more impressive by the fact that it was an work on paper.

Another slightly smaller and later watercolour of the same location was also on offer. Depicting a procession of men exiting the mosque led by a group of musicians playing the lute and tambourines, it had a higher estimate of £30,000-50,000 but sold at £48,000.

The buyers of both Simoni works were anonymous.

Festival scene

Elsewhere at the sale, a good competition came for another north African scene but this time from the 20th century.

Moussem in Moula Dourein by French painter Jacques Majorelle (18861962) depicted a gathering on the coastal Moroccan city of Essaouira.

A moussem is a festival common in all north Africa. Traditionally religious in context, these have become a celebration of local traditions, particularly of Berber tribal life.


'Moussem in Moula Dourein, Essaouira' by Jacques Majorelle – £180,000 at Sotheby’s.

Painted in 1940, the 2ft 3in x 2ft 10in (69 x 85cm) tempera on canvas was one of seven works by Majorelle depicting this moussem.

The artist, the son of the celebrated Art Nouveau furniture designer Louis Majorelle (1859-1926), followed in his father’s footsteps in keeping a keen eye on new artistic styles and techniques.

While he might be best remembered today for constructing the Jardins Majorelle in Marrakech, his freely painted and richly coloured views of Morocco gave new light to the Orientalist tradition.

With interest coming from both wealthy Parisians with second homes in Marrakech, as well as growing interest in the region itself, his works have become more prominent on the market.

This was underlined when Paris auction house Artcurial sold La Kasbah rouge (Freija) from 1924 for a record €1.28m in 2011.

This example offered at Sotheby’s came to auction from the family of the artist and interest was clearly raised by the good subject and provenance.

Against a £100,000-150,000 estimate, it sold at £180,000 to a north African buyer.