Arab art collector accuses Sotheby’s of misleading him over $1m sculpture

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Al-Qassemi bought “Au Bord du Nil” (On the Banks of the Nile), a 119cm bronze statue of a woman carrying a water jug, by Mahmoud Mokhtar. (Getty Images)
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Sheikh Sultan Al-Qassemi, founder of the Barjeel Art Foundation in the UAE. (Getty Images)
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Sheikh Sultan Al-Qassemi also claims the sale was handled by two people who were related, contravening Sotheby’s own code of business conduct. (AFP)
Updated 04 May 2018
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Arab art collector accuses Sotheby’s of misleading him over $1m sculpture

  • One of the world’s foremost collectors of Arab art is suing Sotheby's
  • Al-Qassemi paid £725,000 ($989,221) in 2016 for Au Bord Du Nil

LONDON: The scene is the High Court in London. On one side, Sheikh Sultan Al-Qassemi, founder of the Barjeel Art Foundation in the UAE and one of the world’s foremost collectors of contemporary art.

On the other side, Sotheby’s, the auctioneers. At stake, potentially, is the reputation of one of the world’s top auction houses and the £725,000 ($989,221) paid for a sculpture that may or may not be quite as advertised.

That is the price Al-Qassemi paid for “Au Bord du Nil” (On the Banks of the Nile), a 119cm bronze statue of a woman carrying a water jug, by Mahmoud Mokhtar, the sculptor widely considered to be the father of modern Egyptian sculpture and certainly among the greats of Middle Eastern art.

According to Sotheby’s catalogue for the sale, which took place on April 21, 2016, the piece was circa 1920s 1920s]. The buyer — in this case, Charles Pocock, adviser to Al-Qassemi and buyer for the Barjeel Art Foundation — requested a report from the foundry that cast the sculpture. 

It arrived two months later, on June 21, 2016. “Within 24 hours, we knew we had a problem,” Pocock told Arab News.

The report from the Susse Foundry in Paris states that work on casting the sculpture  began in August 1938 and it was released on to the market on March 14, 1939. But Mokhtar died in 1934, suggesting that the piece Al-Qassemi bought was a posthumous — and therefore unfinished — piece, meaning it was worth a good deal less than he paid.

The Susse Foundry made six castings and of those, only one was posthumous. But Sotheby’s strongly disagree that the foundry report should be interpreted as stating that the posthumous sculpture is the one bought by Al-Qassem.

However, because of certain marks on the statue, Al-Qassem and his team are convinced that he did indeed buy the posthumous casting. Again, Sotheby’s interpretation of the marks differs from Al-Qassem’s.

He obtained a new valuation of the sculpture of  £70,000 - ten times less than what he paid and considerably less even than the £120,000-£180,000 Sotheby’s estimated it would fetch at auction.

Pocock said that when he contacted Sotheby’s, “In effect they verbally admitted to miscataloguing and offered to change the invoice.”

But further research revealed that none of the six castings of “Au Bord du Nil” done by Susse Foundry were from the 1920s.

The earliest was 1931. Previous sales at auction of  other, smaller castings of the sculpture (including one sold by Sotheby’s in 2007) dated the piece from the 1930s. Al-Qassemi asked for his money back.

“And that’s when Sotheby’s threw legal at us,” Pocock said. “Suddenly, my communications were being handled by their lawyers so we had to go legal too.”

The court case opened in April last year and soon threw up another problem. Sotheby’s had to disclose that the consignor [seller] of the sculpture was Nesreen Farag, an art dealer based in New York and Marbella — and mother of Mai Eldib, Sotheby’s modern Arab art specialist and consultant for the sale of the Mokhtar sculpture. 
This potentially created a conflict of interest. Sotheby’s own code of business conduct states that a conflict of interest can arise “when you or your immediate family members have a personal affiliation with a client, a client’s agent to competitor.”

The guide adds: “You must recognize that even the appearance of impropriety can be damaging to our reputation.”

Pocock said there had been “rumors” about Eldib and Farag. Yet he maintains that Eldib claimed not to know the seller of the Mokhtar sculpture. “Mai told me in May 2017 that she had never met the person consigning the artwork until they had consigned it in December, which I find quite hard to believe, considering it’s her mother,” he said. 

He also remembers seeing her in the room during the sale, apparently taking telephone bids. “But who from?” he asked.

Sotheby’s confirm Eldib was on the phone “with an unrelated client (not her mother) and no bid was executed.”

The case is likely to end the long-standing and — until now — fruitful relationship between the great auction house and one if its top clients.

“Sheikh Sultan tried for a long time to settle this amicably. We have never disputed that the sculpture is by Mokhtar, but it was not completed in his lifetime, and that’s how it was sold. And it was the foundry report that Sotheby’s provided that alerted us to that,” Pocock said. “For the 25 percent premium —£125,000 in this case — that Sotheby’s gets, you expect them to do their research properly.

“Sheikh Sultan is feeling very aggrieved and disappointed. He doesn’t expect special treatment, but he doesn’t expect to be treated like this.”

In a statement Sotheby’s said the word “circa” was deliberately used in the catalogue for the sculpture and that the available information “strongly supports the view that this is lifetime cast.” The foundry report was a “hypothesis” which “does not state categorically that this sculpture was the one posthumous cast made in 1938 or 1939.”

The auction house said the identity of clients was confidential but there was no dispute about revealing the seller of the sculpture was Nesreen Farag.  

The statement continued: “We never want a valued and respected client to be unhappy with our service, but in this case we simply could not resolve our good faith dispute, despite our very best efforts. We are confident that the court will find that Sotheby’s acted appropriately.”

The case in the High Court continues with Judge Waksman QC presiding. The sculpture remains in storage in London.


‘Game of Thrones’ seeks record in final Emmys battle

Updated 20 September 2019

‘Game of Thrones’ seeks record in final Emmys battle

  • ‘Game of Thrones’ has twice won 12 awards in a single season
  • ‘Game of Thrones’ was not just a critical hit but a sweeping cultural phenomenon

LOS ANGELES: “Game of Thrones” will seek to make Emmy history one final time Sunday when television’s best and brightest gather at a glamorous ceremony in Los Angeles to bid farewell to a number of long-running hit shows.
Despite its misfiring finale which divided fans, the fantasy epic about feuding families and flame-shooting dragons secured a whopping 32 nominations for this year’s Emmys — television’s version of the Oscars.
The most decorated fictional show in Emmys history, “Thrones” has twice won 12 awards in a single season.
It is well on its way to besting that record this year, with 10 awards already bagged in lesser categories at last week’s Creative Arts Emmys, including for the show’s blockbuster special effects and mock-medieval swords-and-bodices costumes.
It is the overwhelming favorite to add the top drama series prize to its haul on Sunday.
“All signs point to ‘Game of Thrones’ picking that up,” predicted Variety’s Michael Schneider.
“Even if fans weren’t necessarily loving that final season ... it doesn’t matter — if the voters love it, then that’s what’s going to win the Emmy,” he added.
The Television Academy’s 24,000-plus voters had two weeks in August to pick their favorites.
To get across the line Sunday, “Thrones” has 14 contenders across seven categories.
Serial winner Peter Dinklage is a front-runner for sharp-tongued dwarf Tyrion Lannister, as is Maisie Williams as princess-turned-assassin Arya Stark.
Emilia Clarke (Daenerys Targaryen) and Kit Harington (Jon Snow) are among the others in the running.
“Thrones” was not just a critical hit but a sweeping cultural phenomenon — more than 40 million tuned in to watch each episode of the final season.
Emmys organizers, who have copied the Oscars by eschewing a host this year, will hope that such wild popularity lifts the ceremony’s viewing figures.
All 10 “Thrones” acting nominees will serve as guest presenters — as will the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow, Ben Stiller and the Kardashians.
Further star power among the acting nominees will be provided by Oscar-winners Michael Douglas, Olivia Colman, Mahershala Ali and Patricia Arquette.
Amazon’s “The Marvelous Mrs.Maisel” and HBO’s “Chernobyl” have also emerged as powerhouse contenders.
“Mrs Maisel” — Amazon’s story of a 1950s housewife-turned-stand up comic — won the best comedy Emmy last year, and the second season is well-placed to add further prizes Sunday.
It is locked in a fierce showdown for the overall comedy gong with “Veep” and “Fleabag.”
Like “Thrones,” US political satire “Veep” is contending its final Emmys after a stellar run, including 17 statuettes.
The show won best comedy in 2015, 2016 and 2017, but took a forced hiatus last year as Julia Louis-Dreyfus battled breast cancer.
She would claim the standalone record for acting Emmys with a ninth win.
Another long-running popular show taking its final Emmys bow is “The Big Bang Theory,” the throwback sitcom about a group of geeky, young California scientists.
It earned only one nomination — for directing — but its creators are unlikely to mind after all 12 seasons were purchased by HBO Max streaming service this week for a reported $500 million.
In the limited series categories, “Chernobyl,” HBO’s drama about the 1986 nuclear disaster, won seven technical Emmys last weekend. It even inflicted a rare defeat on “Thrones” in production design.
But it may struggle to add to that tally on Sunday, when it competes with Netflix’s “When They See Us,” the searing true story of five men wrongly accused of raping a Central Park jogger, which has eight acting nominations.
In the variety sections, HBO’s political satire “Last Week Tonight” starring British comedian John Oliver is again front-runner, while NBC’s all-time leading Emmys winner “Saturday Night Live” remains formidable.
National Geographic’s “Free Solo” does not compete Sunday, but scooped an impressive seven Emmys last weekend.
The Oscar-winning documentary about a hair-raising, free solo climb of El Capitan in California’s Yosemite swept the non-fiction categories.