Christie's New York put 19 Orientalist paintings on the auction block at its Rockefeller Center headquarters last night, Oct. 31, 2001 -- yes, Halloween. Though the collection was valued at more than $10 million, only five paintings sold for a meager total of $2,461,000. The auction could hardly have had a worse run of luck.
Yes, the collection was praised as a "outstanding one" by no less than David Farmer, director of the Dahesh Museum of Art here in New York. "The Gérômes are as good you will find anywhere," said Farmer. And Christie's had long been the market leader in this genre. Only two years ago, Christie's sold Ludwig Deutsch's The Palace Guard for a staggering $3,192,500. But there were other factors involved in the weak sales tally last night.
First, the tragedy and trauma of Sept. 11 overshadowed the sale, which featured paintings depicting Arab men, some in full battle gear with gleaming scimitars. The death yesterday of the fourth U.S. anthrax victim (and the first in New York) was presumably on the minds of potential bidders for the lots. Finally, Halloween night's usual mood of ghoulish horror, however carnivalesque, was ill-suited for such a sale.
But then the consignor, the Egyptian-born Alexander Ebeid, who made his fortune in consumer products industries in Dubai, was a complete stranger to American anxiety.
A mere 46 people, including dealers Guy Stair Sainty and Patrick Cooney, took in the sale, with 12 Christie's staffers manning the phones.
The top lot, John Frederick Lewis' The Bezestein Bazaar of El Khan Khalil, Cairo (est. $2 million-$3 million), considered his largest and most important work, failed to rouse bidders. It was bought in when no bids exceeded $1.3 million. A Damascus mosque scene by the German Gustav Bauernfeind (est. $900,000-$1,200,000) also suffered and passed. Another picture by the artist of a drowsy mosque warden (est. $700,000-$900,000) languished and went unsold at a $560,000 bid. Clearly, high reserves were in full force.
Was there a pattern to the hits and misses? Are all portrayals of noble Arabs and handsome Nubians out of bounds in these "America under Attack" days? No conclusion can be drawn. Jean-Leon Gérôme's portrait of a brazen Bashi-Bazouk chieftain fully armed with daggers and guns (est. $700,000-$900,000) passed, but the French artist's portrait of an equally disreputable character, The Pelt Merchant, Cairo (est. $1.2 million-$1.6 million), sold for $1,326,000. That was the top lot of the evening.
Another work that sold, a bloody battle scene, Le Giaour by Alexandre-Marie Colin (est. $500,000-$700,000), found favor and went for $534,000.
Private dealer Patrick Cooney picked up Adolf Schreyer's The Chase, a desert panorama of a group of Bedouins at full gallop (est. $220,000-$280,000), for $226,000. He purchased the 1863 painting for an American private collector with an "eclectic collection of 19th-century European paintings." This dealer's view of the auction, which was only 24 percent sold by value and 26 percent sold by lot? "It is an unfortunate time," said Cooney.
Interestingly, the consigner acquired the majority of his works in the 1970s, when examples of such paintings could be picked up for $50,000. The overwhelming majority of this particular segment of his collection was purchased from London's Fine Art Society.
"I wanted to diversify my holdings," said Ebeid, who owns 30 more Orientalist paintings at his English country estate. "I had been planning to begin collecting contemporary art and discover new talent."
"There's always a better day," added his wife, who was with him at the sale.
After such results, some observers wondered whether the auction might not have been postponed. Wendy Goldsmith, who conducted the sale (and is Christie's head of 19th-century European art), was unavailable to comment on the timing of the sale.