Rare Etel Adnan piece up for auction at Sotheby's contemporary Middle East art auction

American-Lebanese artist and writer died last year and 'California', a privately owned artwork painted in 1970, will go on sale for the first time

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Sotheby’s much-vaunted calendar of Middle East exhibitions opens in London this week with a vast and dazzling collection that covers Islamic art, Orientalist paintings and contemporary Arab works, including an unseen painting by the late Etel Adnan.

From modern paintings, drawings, sculptures and ceramics by artists across the Arabian Peninsula, North Africa, Iran and Turkey to those produced during 1,200 years of Islamic patronage, the displays will be open to public view in London from October 21-25 before going under the hammer.

The UK auction house says the exhibits, which include Indian art, have a combined estimated auction value of £17 million ($19.1m) to £24.5m.

While historic pieces of Islamic significance, like the rare 16th-century folio from the Shahnameh ― or Book of Kings ― made for Shah Tahmasp of Persia and valued at up to £6 million, are expected to draw the wealthiest bidders. Fans of the region’s modern artists can acquire equally exceptional pieces at more affordable prices.

A particular highlight is an artwork by renowned American-Lebanese artist Adnan, from 1970, that has never been exhibited or sold before.

Given as a gift in the early 1970s to the Idriss family, old friends of Adnan’s, the abstract painting, California, is an "exciting rediscovery", says Sotheby’s head of communications for the Middle East, Melica Khansari, who expects the winning bid to “set the record” for a sale of an Adnan work.

The online auction for contemporary works from the Middle East is now open, with a top bid for California already at £140,000 with five days still to go before bidding ends.

Adnan was born in 1925 to a Greek mother and Syrian father, and raised in Beirut, Lebanon. Studying at French language schools in Lebanon, she then read philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris.

Primarily recognised as a writer and poet, her most famous literary work was her 1977 novel Sitt Marie Rose, but Adnan, who died last year aged 96, was always an accomplished artist.

She started painting in the late 1950s, while at the same time working as a professor of philosophy in California, and became renowned for her colourful abstract compositions in later life.

California, painted during the Lebanese artist’s time living in America’s golden state, captures the exquisiteness of Adnan’s cubist abstraction of a cityscape of the small waterfront town of Sausalito in San Francisco Bay, where she lived.

Lebanese-American writer, poet and painter, Etel Adnan, was a renowned figure in the Middle East culture scene. Photo: Abu Dhabi Festival

The head of sales for Sotheby’s 20th-century Middle East auctions described the painting as “characteristic of Adnan’s signature technique, infused with meditative and introspective undertones”.

“The city emerges from an amalgamation of contrasting geometric shapes, trapped between a pale grey sky and an abstract mound shining red under a crimson star. Although this painting clearly mirrors a particular landscape in Adnan’s memory, it also leaves a broad space of interpretation to the viewer, with the red shapes evocative of both hills or the sea in what could be dusk or dawn on the city,” wrote Alexandra Roy.

For Nadania Idriss, who grew up in San Francisco and first met the artist she knew as “Auntie Etel” when she was a baby, the work of art holds a great deal more meaning.

“Etel gifted the painting to my parents when they moved to the Bay Area. It was definitely a major part of my childhood and upbringing, always in a prominent place in our living room. My parents view their collection as communal property, so my brother, who is five years older than I am, first took it with him when he moved out. He returned the painting a few years later and then it was given to me,” Ms Idriss told The National.

California has been hanging on her wall in Berlin since she moved there and, in 2011, founded Berlin Glas, a non-profit organisation that collaborates with artists and educators to promote opportunities for working with glass among youth and migrant communities.

After worrying about the condition of the “treasured” artwork in her dry and sunlit home, Ms Idriss decided the painting belonged in a more suitable environment and will put the proceeds of the sale towards Berlin Glas's programmes and upgrading the studio building.

“I remember my mother telling me that Etel was happy I was working directly with the visual arts,” Ms Idriss wrote.

"I think Etel would be very happy to know that her painting will support our programmes that are geared for community building, integration and the arts.”

Sotheby’s auction of 20th century art from the Middle East takes place online from October 19 to 25 . The live auction of arts of the Islamic world and India takes place on October 26.

Updated: October 24, 2022, 6:47 AM