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

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.

Image Nation Abu Dhabi’s ‘Free Solo’ sweeps Creative Emmys

‘Free Solo’ follows Alex Honnold’s attempt to become the first person to climb El Capitan. (Supplied)
Updated 15 September 2019

Image Nation Abu Dhabi’s ‘Free Solo’ sweeps Creative Emmys

  • “Free Solo’” has won seven Creative Arts Emmy Awards
  • The documentary picked up every award for which it was nominated at Saturday’s ceremony in Los Angeles

DUBAI: Co-produced by Image Nation Abu Dhabi, the critically-acclaimed documentary “Free Solo’” has won seven Creative Arts Emmy Awards, adding to a slate of honors that already includes a BAFTA and an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

The documentary picked up every award for which it was nominated at Saturday’s ceremony in Los Angeles, including outstanding directing for a documentary/nonfiction program, outstanding cinematography, sound editing, sound mixing, picture editing, music composition and best achievement in interactive media.

Presented by National Geographic, directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin and co-produced by Image Nation, “Free Solo” follows Alex Honnold’s attempt to become the first person to climb El Capitan – a 3,000 foot high vertical rock in Yosemite National Park – with no ropes or safety gear.

The documentary was co-produced by Parkes+MacDonald, Image Nation, Little Monster Films and National Geographic.

"I think it always comes back to Alex, the diligence and discipline and teaching himself over the years," Vasarhelyi told the Hollywood Reporter backstage at Sunday’s award ceremony. "I think in terms of the Creative Arts Emmys, Alex brought so much craft to what he did, that all of us, every member of our team got a nomination. So it’s incredible to see the Academy appreciates the hard work that went into it."

In February, “Free Solo” won an Oscar at the 91st Academy Awards. After the ceremony Chin told reporters, “Hanging off the wall, I couldn’t see Alex Honnold below, and I just had to trust that he was just being perfect. We also had to carry the weight of the entire production being perfect, because if we made any mistakes, it could have been catastrophic.”

UAE-based fans were treated to a special screening of the film in March and chief content office of Image Nation Ben Ross shared his thoughts at the event.

“From the incredible reviews to the Academy Award and BAFTA wins, we are so proud that Image Nation Abu Dhabi and the UAE can say it helped to support this incredible film…It has been an honor to work with the National Geographic.”