Late 1940s Alexandria was hit hard by unemployment and homelessness, as thousands of military veterans returned home from the Second World War. One of these men was the subject of a painting of extraordinary sympathy and grace, Le Chomeur (The Vagabond, 1946) by Egyptian modern master Mahmoud Said. The painting is being put up for auction by Bonhams as part of its Middle Eastern and contemporary art sale on Tuesday, November 24. It is a coup of sorts for the London auction house. Few of the artist's works remain in private hands, and the painting is distinctive within his oeuvre.
“It’s a solemn, reflective work,” says Nima Sagharchi, director of Middle Eastern, Islamic and South Asian art for Bonhams. “The work follows a motif we can find all over – in Goya, Manet – of an outsider or outcast who is seen as a source of wisdom.”
The painting shows a man kneeling as if in prayer, his eyes closed and his lips slightly parted. His head is wrapped in a worn bandage, and behind him, sailing boats on the Mediterranean and streaks of feathery clouds fill out a dark sky. The man’s air of solitude is corroborated by the diagonals created by the clouds, the riverbanks and the triangle of the boat’s sail, all pointing towards him.
It is an unusual painting for a man for whom art was not an obvious choice. Said was born to Egyptian aristocracy. His father, Mohamed Said Pasha, served as the country’s prime minister from 1910 to 1914, and one of his nieces married King Farouk of Egypt to become Queen Farida. Said himself was a judge, but gave it up at the age of 50 to pursue painting full time, embracing Egyptian nationalism as British rule ended.
Artists and writers in the country eschewed the Europeanised, urban populations of Cairo and Alexandria and looked instead towards rural and Upper Egypt to find and celebrate "real Egypt". Said painted romantic depictions of the fellaheen (farmers) and dark-skinned nudes, as well as portraits of Alexandrian elites, from his home studio, in a dichotomy that remains suggestive of Said as a transition figure between a colonised and a nationalist identity.
With Le Chomeur, Said responded to the heartbreak of the post-war period. The figure represented is unknown, an anonymity that Sagharchi surmises is deliberate, allowing him to personify a larger national trauma. From a market standpoint, the work's sober tone is particularly appealing. Among buyers in the Gulf, Lebanon and Egypt, there is likely to be competition for the work, which has been given an estimate of £350,000-£500,000 ($464,000–$663,000).
That figure is slightly above recent estimates and sales, reflecting its rarity and its strong provenance. The painting was previously owned by Egyptian actress Leila Sheir, whose husband bought it for her from Said's daughter in 1977. By that time it had also been exhibited at the Musee des Arts Decoratifs, which occupies a wing at the Louvre in Paris – it was exhibited at the museum in 1949.
No doubt, of course, Bonhams is hoping for a repeat performance of Said's L'ile heureuse (1927), a more typical Egyptian scene, which it sold for $1.2 million, up from a low estimate of $245,000, in 2016. That sum remains a record for an Arab artist in an auction held outside the region. Said also holds the record price for an Arab work sold anywhere at auction, for The Whirling Dervishes (1929), which went for $2.2m at Christie's Dubai in 2010.
Overall, the Bonhams lot carries an estimate of £1.7m-£2.6m for 84 works. Lots include a calligraphic painting by Iranian artist Charles Hossein Zenderoudi, estimated at £120,000-£180,000, an untitled painting from 1970 by Huguette Caland, estimated at £10,000-15,000, and a 2007 work by Moroccan painter Mohamed Melehi, who died after contracting Covid-19 last month, estimated at £20,000-£30,000.
Sagharchi says despite the economic uncertainty of the pandemic, Bonhams Middle East is experiencing its best year in terms of auctions and private sales.
“There is less competition,” he says. “Art fairs have been cancelled, and the market is more concentrated. Plus, people have much more free time. There aren’t that many outlets and they have time to research and learn more.”
The London specialist says the number of buyers from the UAE has risen by about 50 per cent over last year. Meanwhile, the Middle Eastern market has also been buoyed by political uncertainty. The difficulties of moving currency from Iran and Lebanon, says Sagharchi, means that wealthy collectors are now more inclined to invest in paintings.
"I don't want to go as far as to say it's almost sold," Sagharchi says of Le Chomeur. "But I feel confident the painting will go back to the Middle East, and hopefully be on public view in the near future."