Long overlooked by museums and academics, Orientalism – the 19th-century genre that grew from artists travelling to then faraway lands such as Egypt, Morocco and Algiers and painting what they discovered there – is steadily regaining traction in the art market and the annals of art history. For Egyptian collector Shafik Gabr – MD of the investment group ARTOC, founder of Egypt’s International Economic Forum and member of many international business councils – and former Christie’s specialist Dina Nasser-Khadivi, now curator of Gabr’s art collection, it’s about time. “When I started collecting in the early 1990s, I had very little competition. No one was interested in these works,” says Gabr, a casually confident ideas man who in his professional life is intensely devoted to bettering relations between East and West. Nasser-Khadivi, a fast-speaking, stylish young Iranian woman, concurs: “When I started working at Christie’s in the early 2000s, I couldn’t believe how these gorgeous paintings were being overlooked. I knew that with more study and research, I could get clients to take notice.”
Orientalist painting – whose best-known artists include Jean-Léon Gérôme, Gustav Bauernfeind and Ludwig Deutsch – has had something of a mixed reputation among western academics ever since the Palestinian/American cultural critic Edward Said wrote his ground-breaking book Orientalism in 1978, which criticised the West’s imperialistic tendency to exoticise – and as such misrepresent – the East.
“Mr Said was a great scholar,” says Gabr, “but I disagree that we should condemn the Orientalist genre. These were artists, not communications experts. Sure, they may have had their own visions, but they came and saw for themselves, and I respect that.”
Equally passionate in her defence of Orientalism, Nasser-Khadivi points out that “the main collectors of Orientalism for the past 20 years have been Middle Eastern. In a way, they are collecting back their own culture.” Middle Eastern artists back then weren’t allowed to paint people for religious reasons, as well as it not being in style. “I’m Iranian and I wanted to do something that had a connection to my background. I fell in love with the history, detail and beauty of the Orientalists.”
Gabr’s first Orientalist acquisition took place in 1993, when he bought a painting by Ludwig Deutsch, Egyptian Priest Entering a Temple (1892) for $3,940. “I’d never heard of the artist, but I’d always been fascinated by early Pharaonic civilisation. And I just liked how it was painted.” Back then, few other people had heard of Deutsch either, and Gabr was buying ahead of a market curve. Within two years he had acquired a further 25 Orientalist paintings, adding another 37 on his own by 2007, when he hired Nasser-Khadivi. Over that period prices grew considerably and in 2006, a Deutsch painting cost Gabr $1.64m at auction.
Meanwhile, at Christie’s, Nasser-Khadivi was pushing her employer and her clients to realise how undervalued the market was. “People didn’t even know who [Leopold] Muller was. But I worked really hard and finally in 2001 we began holding Orientalist sales.” Auction houses have seen a huge rise in the market since then – in 2008 Orientalist works grossed about $70m at auction worldwide.
Nasser-Khadivi first encountered Gabr on the phone, when he was bidding on Orientalist works at auction. Among them was one of Gérôme’s most famous works, The Blue Mosque, which he bought from Christie’s for over $1.9m. “I almost had a heart attack over that Gérôme,” Gabr jokes.
When Nasser-Khadivi finally saw Gabr’s entire collection in 2006, she was blown away by its depth and quality. Gabr recalls: “Dina came to do a valuation on my collection. We met afterwards and she said, ‘Do you realise how important what you have here is? You have to share this with people.’ She made me look at the collection in a very different way. Until then I had just been buying for pleasure.” Nasser-Khadivi thought the collection was “amazing”, adding, “I drew up a wish-list of things I thought would round it out.” The list included artists such as Frederick Bridgman and Franz Kosler: Gabr now has good examples of both. “My focus goes beyond aesthetics. I look for works that were important at the time.”
Sixteen years after Gabr began collecting, Orientalism is fashionable again. In 2008 Tate Britain held its The Lure of the East exhibition, featuring works by British Orientalists painted between 1780 and 1930. The Musée d’Orsay is planning a Gérôme exhibition for 2010, which will tour to Los Angeles, and the new Museum of Islamic Art in Doha is expected to announce an Orientalist show shortly.
Gabr, whose near 100-work collection hangs throughout his palatial home in Cairo, takes his guardianship of the works and the need to share them very seriously. Part of Nasser-Khadivi’s remit was to produce a book with colour illustrations of the collection and essays by key academics, which will be released this autumn.
One picture, Gustave Bauernfeind’s A Street Scene, Damascus, has a particularly interesting provenance. Nasser-Khadivi first spotted it years ago in Geneva’s Freeport (a customs-free warehouse) when she worked with Christie’s. “Until then it was thought to have been destroyed – I’d only ever seen a black-and-white reproduction of it. The owner had never even hung it.” Through Nasser-Khadivi, Christie’s sold six works from the collection in 2006. Gabr bought four, but not the Bauernfeind, which sold for just over $1m. He finally bought it a couple of years later, privately, for $2.2m.
This story gives a good indication of how such works are acquired. Galleries such as the Mathaf gallery and Richard Green are among the best trading in Orientalism, but much of the real action happens at auction or behind closed doors. “Supply is very limited,” says Gabr, “and people don’t want to give up what they have. That’s part of the reason the market continues to hold, even in the current economic climate.”
As for the wish-list, Nasser-Khadivi says, “If anyone finds the Leon Belly painting featuring water-carrier girls in green outfits, I’d love to know about it.” Gabr says he is always on the lookout for great works by artists such as Gérôme or Dixie, “and a very specific Edward Lear”.
Asked what he most loves about his collection, Gabr replies, “Perhaps that you can still find scenes like these today. You still see snake charmers, markets and people gathering to discuss current events. It’s funny that with all our cell phones, TV and satellites there is so much misunderstanding between cultures. Perception is everything, and I believe perception between cultures in the time of the Orientalists was closer to reality than it is today.