The rehabilitation of a genre: auction houses continue to bet on Orientalism

Christie's will consign a major John Frederick Lewis painting in June; Sotheby's auction more of the Najd Collection

Continuing the market revival of Orientalist art, Christie’s has announced it will lead its June Orientalist sale with a major painting of the El Khan Khalil souq in Cairo that is expected to fetch £3–5 million (Dh14–23.5 million).

Titled The Bezestein Bazaar of El Khan Khalil, Cairo, the work is one of the few remaining in private hands by English painter John Frederick Lewis, and was executed in Lewis's Surrey studio in 1872. It depicts the soaring cloth section of Cairo's main Ottoman-era market, showing traders chatting and selling their wares as light streams down from the tall ceilings above.

Christie's consignment of the work, part of its June Orientalist sale in London, will follow Sotheby's Orientalist sale at the end of this month, when the latter auction house will sell thirty further works from the Najd Collection. The body of work, put together by a Saudi collector and his London dealer, is one of the major holdings of Orientalist work, and Sotheby's sold 36 works in the fall for the impressive sum of £33.6 million. Top lots in that auction were along the lines of the Lewis estimate, though it is difficult to compare them: a painting of Quranic instruction by Osman Hamdy Bey went for £4.6 million and Ludwig Deutsch's The Tribute, which achieved £4.3 million. The paintings going under the block at this Tuesday, March 31 sale include further work by key Orientalist painters, such as Deutsch Rudolf Ernst, and Jean-Leon Gerome – though it will be a smaller sale, with an estimate of £6,145,000–£9,161,000. Sotheby's will also have a second Orientalist sale in March, separate to the Najd Collection.

Is this a rise or rehabilitation of the genre? The strong sales at Sotheby's and Christie's bullish estimate seem to suggest so. Orientalism covers the work made by European and American painters who visited the Middle East and returned transfixed by its scenes. Frequently working off memories and mementoes, they returned back to their studios at home — as did Lewis for El Khan Khalil souq painting – and reconstructed the intricately detailed interiors of mosques and homes, and scenes of gatherings and markets, that they had witnessed during their travels.

The paintings, particularly those concerning the women’s quarters, or harems, came under fire for their romanticising image of the Arab world, but the sumptuousness of the pictures are now seen as a major source of attraction for would-be buyers, who delight in the awed images. As the Arab world lacked a strong pictorial tradition, these are some of the few visual documents of the late Ottoman period, at least before the introduction of photography.

The rise of museums in the Middle East, such as Louvre Abu Dhabi, and new collectors in the region have also created a new market for the work. These collections have added another fillip in the oscillation between depicted Arab and Islamic world and European and American exhibition: the British Museum, for example, last year staged an exhibition of Orientalist work drawn from the collection of the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia.

This increased interest for Orientalism has made the competition for major works all the keener, as suggested by the Najd’s success and the Lewis estimate.

"The Bezestein Bazaar of El Khan Khalil, Cairo is one of the largest paintings by John Frederick Lewis to come to auction as well as one of the last of this calibre remaining in private hands," said Arne Everwijn, Christie's Senior Specialist European Art. "We are thrilled to be presenting this important work to the international market."