In October 2007, controversy erupted around the attempted sale of an artwork by the Egyptian Modernist painter Mahmoud Saïd (1897-1964) that involved the auction house Christie's, the Egyptian government and the international police organisation Interpol.
Saïd's seductive La Fille aux yeux verts (The Girl with the Green Eyes) – one of the more modest lots in an auction of modern and contemporary Middle Eastern art at Christie's Dubai that also included Ahmed Moustafa's Qur'anic Polyptych of Nine Panels (1995) and Farhad Moshiri's diamond-encrusted One World (2007), both of which went on to set auction records, – was scheduled to go under the hammer when the Egyptian government insisted that it be withdrawn.
Painted by Saïd, an Alexandrian judge and artist who also happened to be the son of one of Egypt's prime ministers and uncle to Queen Farida, the first wife of King Farouk, La Fille aux yeux verts had actually belonged to the Egyptian state, it was claimed at the time, and should have been gracing the walls of a diplomatic residence in New York. But as art historians, auctioneers and the Egyptian government now know, rather than being a criminal matter, the furore over this femme fatale with the green eyes was actually a case of mistaken identity.
Unknown to the wider art community, Saïd had painted two almost identical versions of the same subject, the first in 1931 and a second in 1932, named La Fille aux yeux verts (réplique). It was this later version, which was originally part of the collection of Charles Terrasse, the first director of the Museum of Modern Art in Cairo, that had found its way to Dubai in 2007.
The truth behind the confusion was discovered only recently thanks to archival research that not only revealed that it had become part of Terrasse's private collection as early as January 1936, but that it had also featured in a special issue of the cosmopolitan Egyptian literary and artistic review, Le Semaine Egyptienne, dedicated to Mahmoud Saïd.
Almost exactly 10 years later, La Fille aux yeux verts (réplique) is again up for sale with Christie's Dubai, only this time it is being auctioned in London. The tale of how this has happened is not only illustrative of how the market for Middle Eastern art has changed during the intervening decade but also of how it is now an area of serious concern to auctioneers, collectors and art historians alike.
At the time of the 2007 sale, the general lack of documentation available on Mahmoud Saïd, and on 20th century artists from the region in general, meant that questions of attribution, authenticity and provenance were always open to confusion and debate. In Saïd's case, at least, that is no longer the case.
Saïd is now one of the region's most expensive artists and is considered as one of the most important founders of modern Egyptian painting. In 2010, his The Whirling Dervishes (1929) achieved a price of US$2.5 million (then Dh9.2m) at Christie's Dubai, setting a world-record for the artist and for any Arab work sold at auction to that date.
Thanks to the work of Valerie Didier-Hess, a University of Cambridge and Courtauld Insitute-educated art historian who is Christie's Dubai's director of business development, and Dr Hussam Rashwan, the owner of one of the world's foremost collections of modern Egyptian art, Saïd now also has a complete, two-volume catalogue raisonné, the first-of-its-kind for any Arab artist.
In 2007, Christie's estimated that Saïd's green-eyed girl might fetch somewhere between $50,000 and $70,000, but thanks to the controversy surrounding the picture it hadn't come up for auction since.
Now it is considered as one of the star lots in Christie's forthcoming auction of Middle Eastern modern and contemporary art, which takes places in London on the evening of October 25. It is estimated to fetch between $110,000 and $150,000.
The sale is the first time that Christie’s Dubai has taken works from the region to London, in search of collectors with more diverse tastes and bigger budgets, and also represents another significant first for the Dubai-based auction house.
The forthcoming auction includes a selection of works that point to the diversity of artist's output in the region throughout the 20th century.
These include Saïd's luminous Nu au rideau gris (1934), the abstracted Untitled (reclining) by the Indian-born, UK-trained Saudi-Kuwaiti painter Munira Al Kazi, Sami Rafi's Untitled (blue nude) from 1951, which displays the influence of Picasso and Matisse, and most strikingly of all, La Passion Sauvage or La Passion Dévorante (1940) by the renowned Egyptian Surrealist Ramsès Younan.
Painted in the same year as the Egyptian Art and Freedom movement's inaugural exhibition, La Passion Dévorante features a tortured and female form rendered in a palette of dark, oily pigments and heavy, earthy tones whose palette and form not only echo the Francisco Goya painting now known as Saturn Devouring His Son (c.1819-1823) but also look to Picasso and The Metamorphosis of Lovers, painted two years earlier by the French Surrealist artist André Masson.
Featuring 57 lots, including two paintings donated by the Emirati artist Abdul Qadr Al Rais (b.1951) to benefit Emirates Red Crescent's work in Syrian refugee camps, The Dream and Untitled, Christie's auction also includes major works by Syrian artists such as Mahmoud Hammad and Fateh Moudarres (1922-99), a painter who was also a renowned poet and writer.
As well as Moudarres' Farewell to the Gods in Beirut (1986), a monumental polyptych finished in oils and gold leaf on canvas, the sale includes a pair of portraits by the Aleppo-
born artist from 1974 that are rare examples of the painter's figurative oeuvre.
Featuring Amal Al Ghazi and her brother Ghiath, the portraits blend motifs from ancient Assyrian statuary, a recurring motif in Moudarres's work, with fiery colours and gold leaf divided by dark outlines that not only lend them the quality of a stained glass window but also make reference to Christian iconography and mediaeval art.
In many ways, Christie's sale is the perfect companion to Sotheby's auction of Middle Eastern art, which took place in London last night.
Both auctions feature major works by the same artists including the Iranian painters Bahman Mohasses and Sohrab Sepehri, the Armenian, Lebanese-based painter Paul Guiragossian and the internationally renowned Lebanese artist Shafic Abboud, whose luminous and transluscent La Veste Chinoise (1980), which is offered at Christie's, features ornamentation that recalls the embellished surfaces of Gustav Klimt's paintings and Byzantine mosaics.
In the case of Mahmoud Saïd, Sotheby's also included an important work, Nu Couché au Divan Bleu (Nude Lying on a Blue Sofa), from 1938 and both sales also feature cosmologically inspired works by the Iranian-born master Charles Hossein Zenderoudi, in Sotheby's case Einak Azad Asst, a mixed media work from 1963, and at Christie's Sari Fe Azar from 1965.
Taken together, the sales represent a masterclass in 20th century art from the Middle East and clearly reflect the auction houses’ aspirations for the market. That they are pitching so hard in London and not in the region is telling, but both auctions will be returning to Dubai with sales in November for Sotheby’s and for Christie’s in Spring 2018.
Christie’s evening sale of Middle Eastern Modern & Contemporary Art sale takes place in London on October 25. Visit www.christies.com for more details.