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Sotheby’s Orientalist Sale

March 31, 2022
A portrait of a veiled woman in Middle Eastern dress sold at Sotheby's

A Veiled Beauty by Jean-Léon Gérôme

This past Tuesday, Sotheby’s held their Orientalist sale, featuring sixty-six works by various European and North American artists, predominantly French. While the sale as a whole didn’t do as well as Sotheby’s specialists estimated, there were still some beautiful works up for grabs, some of which went for some unexpected prices. Sotheby’s experts put their faith in Jean-Léon Gérôme’s Veiled Beauty. This one painting makes it clear that some late nineteenth-century French people were rather uninformed about the various cultures represented in the art they bought. Throughout the painting’s life in catalogues and exhibitions, it was called The Mysterious Algerian Woman and Woman of Constantinople. Well, which one is it? Those are two very different places separated by 1400 miles. But it doesn’t matter since one of the points of Orientalism was to portray an exotic other, often disregarding the actual people and cultures to make something beautiful for European canvases (w/p = with buyer’s premium).

A nineteenth-century Cairo street scene by David Roberts sold at Sotheby's

The Bazaar of the Coppersmiths by David Roberts

Sadly, A Veiled Beauty fell just short of its £250K minimum estimate, going for £220K / $287.8K (or £277.2K / $362.7K). Gérôme’s work instead enjoyed second place right behind the unexpected star of the auction: David Roberts’s The Bazaar of the Coppersmiths, Cairo. The bazaar painting was part of a series of Cairo street scenes created by Roberts during the 1840s, with one currently in the British royal family’s collection. The Bazaar of the Coppersmiths was originally expected to go for £80K maximum. So it came as a great surprise when it soared past its estimate and reached £320K / $418.7K (or £403.2K / $527.5K), exactly four times what Sotheby’s experts predicted. Third place went to Sunset on the Nile by Charles Théodore Frère, exceeding its £80K high estimate, though not as exponentially as the Roberts work. The six-foot-wide oil painting, which sold for £105K / $137.4K (or £132.3K / $173.1K), is a gorgeous study in orange and black. The women collecting water on the riverbank, the herd of camels and cattle off in the distance, and the felucca boat gracefully floating by are all silhouettes when put against the warm glow of the Egyptian sun, which has just disappeared below the horizon.

A landscape painting of a sunset on the Nile River in Egypt sold at Sotheby's

Sunset on the Nile by Charles Théodore Frère

While Bazaar of the Coppersmiths was the biggest surprise of the sale, it wasn’t the only one. Georges Washington’s Mounted Warrior also surpassed expectations, selling for £60K / $78.6K (or £75.6 / $99K) when experts predicted it would only go for £18K. Similarly, a portrait by the Austrian Rudolf Ernst entitled A Bashi-Bazouk shows a mustachioed and turbaned Ottoman soldier. It shot past its £15K estimate and sold for £42K / $55K (or £52.9K / $69.3K).

Forty-three of the sixty-six lots offered, or about 65%, met or exceeded their estimates. Meanwhile, fifteen of the lots, about 22.7%, were unsold. Sotheby’s specialists expected everything to go for anywhere between £1.95 million to £2.83 million. Unfortunately, the sale fell short, reaching £1.83 million (or $2.4M). This was likely because many of the lots passed over by buyers were some of the highly-valued works featured. These included William Simpson’s Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives (est. £80K to £120K), Ludwig Deutsch’s Before the Mosque (est. £200K to £300K), and even the painting chosen as the thumbnail and banner image for the whole sale on Sotheby’s website: Jean Discart’s The Basket Weaver, Tangier (est. £120K to £180K).