Christie's auction: Palestinian art soars while former Naqvi-owned works have mixed success

The excitement of the evening belonged to the Palestinian artist Ismail Shammout

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Christie’s Middle Eastern Modern & Contemporary Art sale, which included works once owned by Arif Naqvi, founder of defunct private equity firm Abraaj, met expectations on Wednesday night.

The sell-through rate was 75 per cent, and the sale overall brought in £3.1 million (Dh14.6m) for 114 works.

It is unclear whether the Christie's sale was hurt by the publicity surrounding Naqvi.

Nineteen works on the block had once been owned by the businessman, who is fighting extradition to the US to face fraud and money laundering charges over the collapse of Abraaj, a firm that was based in Dubai.

Key pieces from that collection did fail to sell, such as the Iranian artist Farhad Moshiri's Love (2003), a painting of a jar inscribed with the Farsi word for love, which carried a low estimate of £200,000.

Love by Farhad Moshiri (Iranian, b. 1963)
Estimated at £200,000–£300,000, Love by Farhad Moshiri, which was once in the collection of Arif Naqvi, failed to sell at Christie's on Wednesday night. Abu Nadha for The National

Two calligraphic works by Iranian artist Mohammed Ehsai, one of them formerly owned by Naqvi, also did not move. Although others that he had owned did well: another work by Moshiri sold, and The Dreamer, one of two nudes at the auction by Egyptian artist Mahmoud Said, went for £250,000.

In the sale overall, most works hit the middle of their estimates — much as with the Sotheby's 20th century Middle Eastern sale earlier in the week: on Tuesday night, the Najd Collection of Orientalist works fetched a total of £33.5m at a Sotheby's auction.

Palestinian art: Shammout's Naqba works the favourites on the night

In a show of fervor perhaps stoked by the protests in Lebanon, the excitement of the evening belonged to Ismail Shammout, a Palestinian artist who unflinchingly depicted the miseries of the Nakba in works with clear political and exhortatory tones. Christie’s sold five works by the artist, who in 2018 was the subject of a retrospective at the Sharjah Art Museum.

His 1964 painting The Way, a scene of Palestinians clutching rifles painted almost at close-up, tripled its low estimate to go for £150,000, an auction record for the artist. Three watercolors by the artist also surpassed their estimates, plus an oil of a family scene, Encounter in the Prison Cell (1965).

'The Way' by Ismail Shammout
'The Way' by Ismail Shammout

Another haunting painting of Palestinians at gunpoint – by Egyptian modernist Samir Rafi, whose work was shown at Green Art Gallery in Dubai this year – also moved past its £30,000–£40,000 estimate to sell for £87,500, an auction record for Rafi.

It is more likely, however, that the unrest in Lebanon is a distraction for the market, in which both Lebanese artists and buyers play a large role. Three fine paintings by Lebanese artist Shafic Abboud, with estimates around £50,000, were each passed on. Lebanese artist Ayman Baalbaki's enormous painting of a man in a bright red keffiyeh (Al Moulatham, 2010) also failed to match its reserve of £120,000.

Despite the tricky market and the ongoing problem of supply, the sale had some exemplary works in it, which found good homes. The wonderful The Peasant of the Olive Mountain by Syrian artist Fateh Moudarres, originally from Naqvi's collection, went for £62,500.

Syrian artist Louay Kayyali's elegant Untitled (The Portrait of Umayma Hussein Ibish) fetched £47,500.

Louay Kayyali’s (Syrian,1934-1978) Portrait of Umayma Hussein Ibish painted in 1962, which sold for £47,500 (Dhs222,157)
Louay Kayyali’s (Syrian,1934-1978) Portrait of Umayma Hussein Ibish painted in 1962, which sold for £47,500 (Dhs222,157)

Also, a beautiful mirrored work mimicking wings (Untitled [Faravahar Wings, Zarathustra]) by the Iranian artist Monir Farmanfarmaian sold for £299,250, respectably within its estimate. Farmanfarmaian, who died in April, is currently the subject of a retrospective at the Sharjah Art Foundation; this work was the top lot of the auction.

Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian’s (Iranian, 1924-2019) 2008, Untitled (Faravahar Wings, Zarathustra), which sold for £299,250 (Dh1,399,592)
Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian’s (Iranian, 1924-2019) 2008, Untitled (Faravahar Wings, Zarathustra), which sold for £299,250 (Dh1,399,592)