The 10 most expensive works by Arab artists sold at auction in 2023

Paintings dominated and the priciest fetched $1.1 million, setting a record in the process

Mahmoud Said's Fille a l’imprime (Girl in a Printed Dress) is in the top three priciest Arab artworks sold this year. Photo: Christie's
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The global appetite for works by Arab artists continues to grow at pace.

Both Christie’s and Sotheby’s ran multiple auctions this year complete with a wealth of pieces by pioneering artists from the region – including men and women from diverse backgrounds, experiences and techniques.

Here are the 10 most expensive sales of the year.

10. California by Etel Adnan

Sold for: $352,800

Celebrated Lebanese-American artist Etel Adnan is known for multidimensional and multidisciplinary work.

Her painting California sold for $352,800 in May at Christie’s in New York.

Painted in 2003, the piece is a homage to California, where Adnan moved to in the 1950s. The work takes inspiration from natural elements of America's West Coast – the ocean, mountains, forest and desert – and refines them into a unique representation, emblematic of Adnan’s aesthetic voice and style.

8. Rate of Movement by Abdel Hadi El Gazzar

Sold for: $355,708

Despite his untimely death in 1966 aged 41, painter Abdel Hadi El Gazzar had a significant impact on the course of modern Egyptian art.

His large body of work reveals an artist who explored ideas of existentialism as well as sociopolitical commentary.

Rate of Movement, which was sold by Sotheby’s in October for £279,400 ($355,708), is an example of El Gazzar’s ability to meld detailed geometric shapes, creating a sense of flatness, against ideas of depth and space.

8. Artist 2 by Abduljabbar Al Yahya

Sold for: $355,708

Pioneering modern Saudi artist Abduljabbar Al Yahya’s 1985 painting, like much of his work, explores the themes of belonging, humanity and the importance of art.

Artist 2 was also sold by Sotheby's for £279,400 ($355,708) in October, fetching the same price as El Gazzar's work.

It illustrates Al Yahya’s interpretation of local culture and traditions, contrasted with his experiences as an artist on the international art scene.

7. Untitled by Etel Adnan

Sold for: $417,097

Christie's sold another piece by Adnan for £327,600 ($417,097) in October.

Painted in 2016, Untitled is a jewel-like exploration of interlocking landscapesque shapes, which are painted in peach, pink, green and blue. The vibrant shapes stand out against a background palate of luminous yellows.

The work evokes the landscapes of Adnan's home in Mount Tamalpais, California, and Beirut, where she spent her childhood.

6. Ischia by Fahrelnissa Zeid

Sold for: $452,715

This previously unseen work by Fahrelnissa Zeid is emblematic of her power as an artist of skill and vision. The Turkish artist, who died in 1991, was a prolific painter and a pioneer of modern art, influencing generations of artists across the region.

Sotheby’s sold Ischia for £355,600 ($452,715) in October. The large piece is thought to have been painted in 1965 in Ischia, Gulf of Naples. The artist and her husband, Zaid bin Hussein, owned a summer home on the Italian island.

Zeid’s brushstrokes depict an explosion of colour, from bold red to intense yellow, set against lush greens and turquoise.

5. Seventh Cross No 229 by Samia Halaby

Sold for: $485,052

The renowned Palestinian artist Samia Halaby described the Seventh Cross No 229 to Christie's as her “first serious effort as an artist who had freed herself from her education”.

Painted as part of a series in 1969, the oil-on-canvas work is inspired by The Holy Family in a Domestic Interior by 15th-century artist Petrus Christus. The series, all of which depict crosses, was also greatly influenced by the American civil rights movement in the 1960s.

Sotheby's sold it for £381,000 ($485,052) in October.

4. Untitled by Huguette Caland

Sold for: $565,902

Painted in 1980, this work by Lebanese artist Huguette Caland is characterised by her use of intense shades of blue, strong lines and physical shapes. The untitled piece follows Caland's Bribes de Corps (Body Parts) series, which was produced between 1973 and 1976.

Untitled was created while the artist was living in Paris with her family. It was a time when Caland’s aesthetics shifted and she employed the use of bolder colours.

Sotheby's sold it for £444,500 ($565,902) in October.

3. Fille a l’imprime (Girl in a Printed Dress) by Mahmoud Said

Sold for: $721,849

The portrait Fille a l’imprime (Girl in a Printed Dress) is one of Egyptian artist Mahmoud Said’s most significant works.

Fille a l’imprime was the most expensive piece sold by Christie's Marhala: Highlights from the Dalloul Collection auction in November, fetching £567,000 ($721,849). At the sale, 48 pieces from across the Arab world were up for auction.

The portrait depicts an unknown woman from the countryside in a printed dress. Egypt's rural landscape is in the background, painted in a darker emotive palette, and Said’s artistic command of light can be seen on the woman's face and arms.

2. Poem by Saloua Raouda Choucair

Sold for: $889,271

Saloua Raouda Choucair's sculpture Poem is an example of her ability to blend the organic and the industrial.

Poem was conceived in 1963 and cast in 2013, it is the second edition of three sculptures. Sotheby's sold the bronze piece for £698,500 ($889,271) in June.

It is part of a wider sculptural series named Poems, or Kasa-id in Arabic, which the artist primarily worked on between 1963 and 1968. In Poems, Choucair explored aesthetical concepts of geometry, rhythm, proportionality and repetition as they occur in nature.

1. Untitled by Mohammed Al Saleem

Sold for: $1.1 million

The most expensive work by an Arab artist sold at auction this year is by Saudi artist Mohammed Al Saleem.

Sotheby's sold Untitled for £889,000 ($1.1 million) in October. According to the auction house, the sale set an auction world record for a Saudi artist.

Painted in 1986, Untitled signifies a crucial turning point for the artist’s aesthetics. The work also reveals Al Saleem’s prowess at stylised figuration within the abstract style.

In the depiction of a desert landscape, Al Saleem recreates dunes through contained slabs of colour, painted in long brushstrokes. The subtle colour variation, in relation to the poses and movements of the figures, creates a sense of contained, balanced energy and harmony.

Updated: January 02, 2024, 12:15 PM