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by Adrian Dannatt
What can Egypt be like? Everyone is mad about it.
-- Eugene Delacroix, Journal, 1824

An invitation to fly from New York to Cairo for dinner with Egypt’s premiere collector of Orientalist art, along with his publisher, the chairman of Sotheby’s and his accompanying staff, offers an opportunity to learn not only about the ways of the very wealthy but also about the deeper relation of art, national identity and indeed politics in the widest sense.

For what is so notable about Shafik Gabr’s collection of 19th-century Western "Orientalist" paintings is not merely their major quality or obvious visual appeal, but rather his own belief that this art embodies a true respect between our two cultures.

As well as admiring their flawless technique and uncanny mimetic talents, Gabr proposes that these artists, far from "colonizing" their subjects, actively bridged the Oriental and Occidental worlds, and he upholds their continued relevance as evidence of a deep Western love for the Middle East, their ambiguous import as signifiers of rapprochement.

As Gabr admits, "You come to Cairo from New York in half a day, but back in the 19th century, American painters, European painters, they would take weeks or months to come here, carrying their canvas with them, carrying their paint.

"They came to live here and then returned with their paintings home to London, to Paris, to Vienna, to New York. And there was I think ironically a much better perception of the Arab world by the West back then than today. For today with all the abilities of internet and cell phone, TV and cable, digital networks and iPhones, there still remains a major perception gap. I call these painters ‘Early Globalists’ who came here and really contributed to an understanding of our Arab world."

Orientialism is certainly much in vogue, a taste for its tropes having burgeoned throughout the Middle East as its prices have recently soared in the West. A major touring exhibition, "The Lure of the East," is currently on view at the Sharjah Art Museum in Qatar (until Apr. 30, 2009), a Jean-Léon Gérôme retrospective is planned for the Musée d’Orsay in 2010 (which travels to the Walters Art Gallery and the Getty Museum) and the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha is soon to announce its own Orientalist exhibition.

On a more practical note, Sotheby’s is launching its first Orientalist sale in Doha in Qatar on Mar. 18 and 19, 2009. And although Gabr has only been collecting these paintings for just over 15 years, his passion for images of his homeland is evinced both by his photography and indeed by his impressive collection of historic photographs of Egypt.

By happy chance, Gabr’s humungous holding company is even called ARTOC, the "art" part further emphasized by the firm’s motto, "the art of investment." And as a limousine takes us up into the Mokattam Heights above Cairo, the roadside for many miles is lined by light-boxes proclaiming the ARTOC firm and its logo, in a kind of ceremonial procession leading to the entrance to his estate. Gabr works and lives in these hills above the city, and his company plays a large role in its development and infrastructure, along with seemingly almost everything else in the country.

On arrival, after half-an-hour of ARTOC advertising, the Gabr residence refuses to disappoint, an amazing horizontal stately home as if conjured by a Palm Beach developer determined to definitively outbid any billionaire neighbor.

And here on steps ablaze with torchères and jewels are the assembled guests, who include not only the Moroccan ambassador, the editor-in-chief of Egypt’s most important newspaper, the country’s number one lawyer, a Saudi diplomat and fabled decorator, but also Sotheby’s A Team.

Here is the impossibly smooth Mr. Alican Ertug, a literally young Turk recently appointed director of Sotheby’s Middle East and mastermind of the company’s new Istanbul office.

Here is Alexandra Brenninkmeyer, a typically delightful representative of that mysterious sub-section known as "client services," and here’s even Lord Mark Poltimore, deputy chairman of Sotheby’s Europe. The latter, whose family name is the aristocratically unpronounceable "Bampfylde," is a tall and endearingly faux-bumbling toff beloved from his appearances on the Antiques Roadshow.

He has known Gabr for a long time, and operates as a specialist in "emerging markets," traveling continually to Russia, China, India and now, revealingly, for the very first time, to Egypt itself.

As if this did not make clear enough the importance of Gabr and his collection to that august English auction house, the final guest is none other than Robin Woodhead, a lynx-eyed deep-coiled charmer, who as chairman of Sotheby’s International is basically number two dog in the whole labyrinthine worldwide caboodle. And as Woodhead disingenuously admits, he has always wanted to write a book about the ways that cultural treasures follow the geographic shifts in the world’s wealth. Indeed.

For it is perhaps no secret that the art market is in a spot of trouble, nor that Sotheby’s is suffering, Standard & Poor’s slapping the company with a recent "credit watch negative" rating of BBB. Yes, this is a buyer’s market and the alacrity and suppleness with which the auction houses will bend to such buyers, especially when they are very, very rich and very determined to carry on collecting, is entertaining to witness.

That said, these pan-international ultra-smoothies with decades of experience at handling the world’s richest people are extremely good at their jobs, not least at maintaining the fiction that everyone is more or less on an equal social and financial footing and nobody desperate.

Touring the collection, impeccably spaced and hung throughout the mansion’s magnificence, Poltimore ponders out loud "What more do you need?" before amusingly correcting himself. "Oh dear, I’m not very good at my job."

In fact he’s ace, not least when he stands at dinner to make a surely much-deployed speech that begins with himself, "by sheer accident of birth," taking his place as a young man in the House of Lords, knowing nothing. "But I do know, Mr. Gabr, that you have been an amazing influence on the Orientalist market. . . ."

Gabr himself can more than outfox any of these pro-charmers, with his ability to quite literally "twinkle" while gently teasing, amusingly tweaking and generally shining.
The world’s ultra-rich are divided between the formidably frightening, terse and tensed dry dictators whose lips are set in neutral disapproval, and a far rarer minority who manage to be both all-powerful and genuinely delightful.
Gabr is among these favored few, he carries everyone’s name within a seemingly photographic memory, never raises his voice, banters and bounces his badinage like any good dinner host, and is so relaxed, so "at one in his own skin," that a listener almost, but only almost, forgets just who he is.

Thus, although he has gathered Sotheby’s elite, Gabr is keen to stress the equal importance of those actual practicing artists present. These include Nazli Madkour, whose images for the New York Limited Editions Club publication of Arabian Days and Nights by Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz were shown at the Corcoran Gallery in 2005, not to mention her book on Women & Art in Egypt, and Farid Fadel, an astonishing Renaissance Man who is a painter, ophthalmologist, singer and pianist.

Also present is Ahmed-Chaouki Rafif, who runs the eponymous Paris publishing house ACR Edition, specialists in Orientalist art, whose recent lavish slip-cased tome on the Gabr Collection is part of the cause of this celebration. Rafif, a major expert on this art who has published the definitive books on many of its practitioners, was born in Marrakesh and divides his time between France and his native Morocco. Rafif exemplifies the notion that today’s Orientalist market is largely defined by "Orientals" themselves, should one dare use the term. These very active investors might include the Lebanese collector Dr. Dahesh, the founder of his own eponymous collection, plus the royal families of various states from Morocco to Saudi Arabia, a Lebanese businessman who only collects the artist Etienne Dinet, and of course also the many emergent and hungry museums of the area.

This is a curious reversal of the assumed "colonialist" bias behind such art as propagated by various post-Marxist professors. Indeed, Gabr himself has no hesitation in expressing his admiration for Edward Said and his famous analysis of "Orientalism" while at the same time categorically disagreeing with its central tenet, that there is something inherently condescending or proprietary in such artists’ work.

As artist Farid Fadel describes his recent researches into Hungarian, Austrian and German Orientalists, he mentions going to Vienna to see their work, "but they had instead a sort of exhibition of 50 years of some local art stuff so I couldn’t see what I wanted." The fact that the experts, collectors and connoisseurs of this kind of painting all strongly resist any notion that it might be demeaning and derogatory to their own culture demonstrates the very slipperiness of our assumptions about that much quote-marked "Other."

This reversal calls to mind contemporary artist Nedko Solakov’s installation showing an African native collector of Western art sitting in his hut hung with prime examples of expensive European and American modernist works.

Gabr believes that "the critique of Orientalism is really based around certain painters who created works more from their imagination than based on reality. Personally, I don’t see anything wrong with that, after all the fantasy one has of America is based on Hollywood rather than reality. If these artists who worked in Europe without ever visiting the Orient represent at most 20 percent of this work you still have the other 80 percent, which speaks for itself."

And this other percentage includes a surprising number of European artists who ended up living for much of their lives in the Orient and becoming de facto citizens, including Dinet, who converted to Islam in 1913, took a local bride and changed his name to Nasr ed-Dine (as opposed to Jim Dine). Indeed, as a vocal supporter of Algerian independence, Dinet was deliberately politically shunned by the art establishment back home in France.
Several notable Orientalists are women, including Elisabet Jerichau-Baumann, by whom Gabr owns a major 1876 painting of a beautiful Egyptian woman, whose overt sexuality suggests a post-feminist celebration of female eroticism as destablizing as it is delightful. These women artists were able to actually visit the Harems of the time, and understand them as locae of family and female companionship, rather than as sheer sensual fantasy.

In fact, the artist of whose work Gabr has in the greatest quantity, 11 paintings, and with whom he commenced his collecting career, is Ludwig Deutsch, who may well have been Jewish.

"I was bidding for a painting of the Wailing Wall and kept being asked, ‘why would you want that’. Because it’s a beautiful painting, a beautiful piece of art, being Jewish or Muslim is not the question. In fact with my name people in Egypt would immediately assume I was Christian not Muslim. At school as a boy I grew up with Jews, Christians, Muslims and it never made any difference."

Gabr, now 55, had a grandfather in politics in the Senate before the 1952 revolution and his late father was a diplomat who retired from the Ministry Foreign Affairs and opened a private sector firm in 1970. "His registration number was 62, which shows how small that sector was then, it was a very tough time for our economy, against all conventional wisdom he started a very risky venture, to introduce Western companies to Egypt at the time we were totally in the domain of the Soviet Union."

His father agreed to pay Gabr’s first year at the American University Cairo and after that he could only continue if he got a scholarship, which naturally he did.
Gabr was accepted by Wharton but couldn’t afford it all by himself so ended up at University London working two jobs to pay the fees, including the American investment bank Manufacturers Hanover Trust, for whom he came back to work for in Cairo, the very first branch of any foreign bank. "I continuously tried to convince my father to let me work with him and finally he told everyone ‘he’s going to be the "gofer’’,’ I heard this term for the first time, had no idea what he meant. I worked for three years then one day he called me to his office and said this is your last day with the company and would not tell me the reason. Two years later he was dying at Sloan Kettering and I asked why he’d fired me and he admitted ‘I just wanted to figure out if you could swim or sink before I pass away’."

In 1980 Gabr applied for a job with ARTOC, which at the time stood for "Arab Trade & Oil Company." "It was in dire straits, I took no salary until I could make a difference, 11 months later I started turning the company around and receiving a salary."

ARTOC now is a gigantic multinational dealing with every sort of serious thing in every corner of the globe but Gabr is as committed to its philanthropic potential as to its everyday profits. "If you can contribute to the community in which you live then you have an obligation to do so. My family foundation and the company are both very involved, if we build a school we physically build that school ourselves, or we build a new clinic as a hands-on operation."

And unlike those annoying art collectors who are always opening private vanity-museums seemingly oblivious to more obviously urgent charitable acts, Gabr is utterly realistic. "At this juncture my society would not appreciate a museum as much as they would appreciate a hospital or a school, and that’s what we’re doing right now."

Gabr is unusual in so much as he feels no sense of chagrin, competition or inferiority in contemplation of the greatness of Egypt’s past, whether it be with the Pharoahs, the Library of Alexandria, or the Suez Canal, which celebrates its 140th anniversary this year. For Gabr what matters is not which ethnic group was responsible for Egypt’s achievements but that his country enjoyed them, including its rich cosmopolitan heyday. "The Belle Epoque architecture we had, the many public sculptures, it’s hard to believe now but I witnessed it myself, Cairo’s roads used to be washed every day with water and soap, Lauren Bacall and Bogart would decide to go to Cairo rather than to Paris. It was a whole different world of culture, theatre, we had one of the most beautiful opera houses, prominent singers would come here to make their career, a famous zoological garden, botanical gardens, our film industry was far bigger than all of today’s Bollywood put together. This country was the cradle of all culture, development and art for this whole region."

Indeed it was his admiration for old scenic photographs taken by European studios in Cairo that led to his own photography. "I was so impressed by these images I used to take my own camera around with me, to emulate some of what they did."

Gabr was even asked to contribute some photographs to exhibition in New York. "Somebody had seen my work and selected a dozen images, both black and white and color photographs documenting life in Egypt. I did think about pursuing a career in photography but I learned way back that unless you have the means you can’t have the luxury of doing the things you like."

With his relatively modest means at the time, Gabr started collecting 19th-century photography of Egypt when vintage prints could still be found it in old stores throughout Cairo.

"I loved paintings for a long time but I could not afford them, that is to say I could not even afford the time to properly learn about them. So I started reading about Orientalism, studying it, going to museums, window-shopping until I bought my very first painting in 1993 in Paris. Then it started snowballing."

This first painting was Egyptian Prince Entering a Temple painted in 1892 by Deutsch and bought from Tajan. Indeed, a very welcome feature of the monographic-book on Gabr’s collection is a "timeline" of all his purchases plus very detailed provenance of where he purchased them. Apart from galleries such as Richard Green and the Fine Art Society, many of these were bought at auction and thus Gabr provides, thanks to an online service entitled Artnet, an unusually transparent guide to what he paid and when.

Thus, we can easily dial-up the fact that Gabr’s very first purchase cost him all of $3,940, while by contrast his Gérôme Blue Mosque from Christie’s in 2006 sold for $1,922,962.

Gabr is insistent that he does not buy by star-name but by the qualities of each painting he sees. "Always I collect individual works rather than famous names, I have sometimes bought paintings by unknowns, very inexpensive, just because they complete the collection, they are beautiful, even if the artist did not have the luck to become more famous. That has led my collecting, what I have been able to compile from different painters, styles and messages. The collection is not Anglophile or Francophile but features Orientalists from all over."

That said Gabr does have some very major works by major names. A David Roberts watercolor of the Nile bought at Christie’s in 1996 for £36,700, another view of the Nile by Edwin Lord Weeks from Sotheby’s in 2007 and an 1855 Frederick Lewis painting also from Sotheby’s for £558,100. Gabr’s most recent Gérôme painting, Jeune Fille Egyptienne, was bought from Christie’s last July for $864,943. His Ludwig Deutsch works are the prime examples of his oeuvre, Morning News, Cairo costing a very solid £904,000 and his seminal Palace Guard hammered down at $1,640,000.

Gabr favors equally any auction house that might have something to interest him and if the majority of his purchases have previously been from Christie’s that was when Lord Poltimore was still there. "I work with them all in a very objective manner but I never really realized how competitive they are with each other, I was maybe naïve. I had a party in London for the book and without thinking about it when Christie’s invited me to do it I accepted but insisted that my friends from Sotheby’s come also. I felt very proud I was able to achieve this, maybe I also aspire to not only a rapprochement between East and West but also a greater understanding between Christie’s and Sotheby’s!"

Sotheby’s is certainly very active on his behalf at present, as are a team of experts worldwide, not only his Geneva-based curator Dina Nasser-Khadivi but also old friends, specialists and academics who have researched and helped find paintings for him Scotland, the U.S., Ireland and Italy.

"I am coming to London next week to see a painting found for me in a private collection by a specialist friend. I’m really looking to buy specific paintings. I was talking to Mark (Poltimore) about one by Lear, one by Deutsch, one by Gérôme, these are specific paintings I am looking for. One I know where it is but the owner doesn’t want to sell, another we’re not sure which person is really the owner so we’re still searching there, some others I can’t find so we are looking. The Lear is an actual painting of the old road to Gizeh, I have two photographs but just can’t find it. I’m also going to London to see a David Roberts and Frederick Lewis but in addition to that I have two days of work, someone’s gotta work to pay for all this!"

Another artist Gabr is actively searching for to complete his collection is the important Turkish painter Osman Hamdi Bey. Indeed attending the dinner was Mrs. Ender Mermerci of Istanbul, who apparently owns several prime examples of his work, she had been brought along by her godson Alican Ertug of Sotheby’s and Gabr enjoyably teased them how he’d now be able to go directly to her house to buy them all without any further help from the auctioneers.

"Orientalism is not catalogued in the same way as other genres, which makes it all more exciting having to do the research. I went all the way to Bruxelles to a tiny place to see a work by Jacques Majorelle, it’s exciting, a treasure hunt, picking up little specks of information like a detective. I also went all the way to Milan to be sadly disappointed by a painting. I am the sort of person does not accept no for an answer, I keep searching, keep increasing my network. I am very passionate about it."

One of Gabr’s ambitious passions is to sponsor and publish a book on the more obscure of these sometimes very obscure artists. "Some of these painters are not at all well known, for example Deutsch remains a mystery. David Roberts kept a record of everything he did, where he went, what paints he used even, but for many of the others information needs to be collated and brought together. That’s what I’m thinking, if I find the right researcher, we’re looking in France, we can really put a good book together on these painters themselves, not just the works but their own lives, these fascinating stories."

Gabr remains resistant to buying other people’s existent collections, a prime example perhaps being the Dahesh Museum of Art, currently without a home. "I saw a collection recently which had some beautiful pieces that I had seen many years ago and could not afford, to see them now offered as part of a whole collection, I just wish I had bought them back then. Because building a collection is a whole different experience, like completing a beautiful puzzle, piece by piece, what am I missing, a certain scene, a certain painter?"

He also resolutely resists buying a work which he has not seen with his own eyes. "I have made that mistake just three times, of buying without seeing the work in flesh,  and I was disappointed by two of them and sold them, they didn’t fit, couldn’t be part of this whole essay. They are the only two I ever sold."

Indeed, Gabr beautifully played with Sotheby’s during dinner concerning the firm’s forthcoming sale in Doha, which includes some key Orientalist works, as due to his business schedule he would have to fly for three hours just to see them in the warehouse for even fewer hours. "Maybe we can close the deal here so I don’t have to go to Doha? So it is agreed you will bring them here to me first beforehand?"

Sotheby’s seemed curiously resistant to the notion, perhaps conscious of those other collectors Gabr is always up against, not least a swathe of Middle-Eastern royalty.

"I am in competition with much heavier hands and deeper pockets than myself, it’s a strong disadvantage to be up against a member of any royal family, and some of the new museums coming up in the Gulf. But I like to think I give them a run for their product. . . a run for their money!"

If Gabr is doubtful about the need for his own museum he’s also dubious about the practicality of touring his treasures.

"Down the road I would like as many people as possible to see these works but I have been very hesitant in terms of transporting the collection. You will be shocked to know that when I buy a painting I literally carry it myself, bring it along, take it to the plane, sit beside it, some of them are big and its quite torturous work. Thus I am coming to Paris just to collect three paintings." The only detail that Gabr is too inherently modest to mention is that though he may physically cradle each work of art, his actual means of transportation is his own Gulfstream G200 private jet.

"The horror was that when one painting came on its own, the customs damaged it, opening the box, and that taught me there are no exceptions. So maybe instead of touring my collection, of which I’m so wary, I’m trying to invite more and more people to come and see it here. They can also see the real Egypt at the same time, almost the same as it was portrayed back then."

Indeed the key theme of Gabr’s collection is its topographical, historical and ethnic realism. "My passion is not just for Orientalism in general but for Orientalism that is based on reality, that can depict our world perfectly. Painters who came here and lived, experienced the country, saw and then painted, rather than those who painted back in their studios wherever they were. These paintings I am looking for are unique, this road no longer exists, there is no record of it.

"Look at this Deutsch painted in 1905 you can see this exact same scene today in Egypt, you can see these same peoples exact faces today in the street, they haven’t changed."

This realism, this everyday engagement between Arab locals and visiting Western artists, absolutely links the intention of his collection with Gabr’s wider wishes, this "bridging" of cultures being both his esthetic and political wont. "Many people have asked me, ‘why are you a voice between East and West, why do you always encourage this dialogue, this bridge?’ And it is not at all because I have political ambitions, I have made it very clear, many times, that I will not be active in politics."

That said, Gabr commutes regularly to Washington, D.C., has known most of the U.S. presidents during his lifetime and naturally knows all the Egyptian politicians even more intimately. He was also closely involved in a recent conference on Islamo-fascism and the future of the Arab world, producing a blueprint regarding "what reforms are needed for the Arab world to be able to integrate globally, to leverage its culture, its history, its wealth, to truly take its position in the world."

Gabr personally believes the biggest challenge in the Arab world is to overhaul its educational practices, which are still based on memorization and learning by rote rather than creativity and real thinking. "I myself was a bad student at school because of a deep negative feeling against memorization." And as an Obama fan, Gabr particularly appreciates the U.S. president’s willingness to take risks. "Leaders who really make change are people like Sadat, assassinated for his views and even Israeli leaders like Rabin, who was also assassinated. We do not have this in Egypt, we are changing but not actively enough, not fast enough."

But Gabr remains an optimist. "Now there is a generational change, now the Arab world has youth, the biggest percentage of youth anywhere. I’m very optimistic that young people, who may have studied abroad, can truly transform this region. And I don’t think you can truly become successful without having success in your art and culture. We have a huge history to rely on, we must be able to reach to our past and base our future on many of the traditions and moral values that we have.

And I am certain that these Orientalist painters really contributed in a big positive way to Western perception of our region. I think any art that can promote understanding between different peoples, which is a big plus and in our world today, more important even than when these paintings were first created."

ADRIAN DANNATT is a New York-based critic and writer.