Sotheby’s first online-only auction for 20th century Middle Eastern art defies COVID-19 to net $2.6m

Bahman Mohasses, Tiresias didn't know much about the Future, 1970, oil on canvas (est. £120,000-180,000). (Supplied)
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Updated 02 April 2020

Sotheby’s first online-only auction for 20th century Middle Eastern art defies COVID-19 to net $2.6m

  • Success of auction house’s category sale signals hope for sector, confidence in ME art amid virus pandemic

DUBAI: A month ago, no one would have imagined that their existence would soon be relegated to the place that they call home.

The world has had to learn a lot, and fast. When it comes to the art market, auction houses such as Sotheby’s and Christie’s have proved that the business sector can still operate, albeit remotely, if absolutely necessary.

Mohamed Melehi, The Blacks, 1963 (est. £55,000-65,000). (Supplied)

That proof came from the first-ever online-only auction for modern and contemporary Middle Eastern art, which totaled $2,679,294, well above pre-sale predictions and with 60 percent of lots exceeding their top-price estimates.

After the British government’s March 23 order for citizens to stay at home over the COVID-19 outbreak, Sotheby’s sale of 20th century Middle Eastern art had to convert into an online auction. Bids opened on March 27 and closed on March 31.

Abed Abdi, Don Quichotte riding neither a donky nor a horse, oil on board, 1967 (est. £12,000-18,000). (Supplied)

“What our online sale has shown is that the market for Middle Eastern art is undeniably strong and resilient – a huge vote of confidence in the market,” said Sotheby’s co-head of sale, Mai Eldib.

The top lot, a dynamic painting by Morocco’s modern master Mohamed Melehi inspired by the cityscape of New York yet rendered with the oriental richness of the artist’ homeland, sold for $487,339, almost seven times its estimate and a record sale for the artist.

Afifa Aleiby, Summer Day, 2005, oil on canvas (est. £18,000-22,000). (Supplied)

Other highlights included Moroccan artist Farid Belkahia, whose “Jerusalem,” a mixed media work dated to around the 1980s, more than doubled its estimate to bring in $244,280.

A work from 1990 by Algerian artist Mahyeddine Baya (1931-1998), who was known for inspiring Pablo Picasso during her youth in France, also sold for way over its forecasted sale price.

Of note was a grouping of works by Palestinian artists led by Abed Abdi whose 1967 painting, “Don Quichotte Riding Neither a Donkey nor a Horse,” sold for $17,000, again beating its pre-sale tag of $14,890. Other artists in the Palestine group included Laila Shawa, Jumana El-Husseini, Abdul Hay Mosallam Zarara, Sliman Mansour and Asim Abu Shakra.

Baya, Untitled, 1990, watercolour, gouache and pencil on paper (est. £8,000-12,000). (Supplied)

“I believe that in such challenging times collectors are now investing in solid material and what is better than to invest in modern art?” said Palestinian collector George Al’ama, who gave six works by Palestinian artists, five of which sold.

“The success of these works gives a very optimistic message to Palestinian artists and the entire Middle Eastern art scene during such tumultuous times.”

According to statistics released by Sotheby’s, nearly 30 percent of bidders in the sale were under 40 years old. There was also a 46 percent increase in the number of bidders in respect to the same sale last year. Another promising sign was that 35 percent of bidders were new to Sotheby’s.

Naim Ismail, Untitled, 1960, oil on canvas (est. £12,000-18,000). (Supplied)

“As to what will happen in the future, it is too soon to speak of trends, but already in the past few weeks we have witnessed new models of engagement and commerce come to the fore in a big way, and we should see a concrete shift in the popularity of online bidding,” added Eldib. 

Will online bidding be the new way forward? “It is already the most popular way to bid at Sotheby’s, but we are seeing a wave in new online participants and perhaps this will be established as the norm,” she added.

High stakes in Johnny Depp libel hearing

Updated 13 July 2020

High stakes in Johnny Depp libel hearing

  • The 57-year-old denies abusing actress Amber Heard — now 34 and the global face of French cosmetics firm L’Oreal
  • Some legal experts following the High Court hearing in London question why Depp decided to put himself through the three-week ordeal

LONDON: Hollywood star Johnny Depp wrapped up five days of gruelling testimony Monday in a libel trial that has exposed the dark underbelly of the lifestyles of the rich and famous.
The “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise hero is suing the publisher and executive editor of Britain’s The Sun tabloid newspaper over a 2018 story branding him a “wife beater.”
The 57-year-old denies abusing actress Amber Heard — now 34 and the global face of French cosmetics firm L’Oreal — during a rocky two-year marriage that ended in a messy 2017 divorce and several lawsuits.
But he has admitted a debilitating drug habit and allowed the defense to air graphic details of 14 assault allegations that made headlines around the world.
Some legal experts following the High Court hearing in London question why Depp decided to put himself through the three-week ordeal given the subject matter being aired.
“He’s been extremely ill-advised to pursue this,” Mark Stephens, a leading media specialist at London law firm Howard Kennedy, told AFP.
“To expose (difficult divorces) to forensic examination is the height of stupidity or hubris.”
Here are the main points that have emerged from the trial so far.
Hollywood’s drug culture has provided the backdrop for the entire hearing.
Depp told the court on Friday that he snorted cocaine to help break his addiction to painkillers.
He argued Thursday that he was suffering from withdrawal while coming off of drugs and was in “no physical condition” to hurt Heard during one alleged incident on his private Bahamas island.
Depp further explained the party drug ecstasy had little effect on him and that he preferred to leave it to Heard and their celebrity friends.
The actress herself was alleged to have sent a party invitation with instructions: “Bring some food, booze and drug of choice, yey!“
Another text Heard allegedly sent from Depp’s phone asked a friend to “procure more mushrooms.”
“Amber Turd” began trending on Twitter after Depp spent a part of Friday trying to explain how a large stool ended up in the couple’s bed in 2016.
Both of them were alleged to have been involved in extramarital affairs at the time and Depp claimed it was left there as revenge by either Heard or one of her friends on her 30th birthday.
Depp called the defense’s claim that it was from one of their dogs “physically impossible” because it was simply too big.
“There were jokes like ‘Amber Turd’, ‘Amber in the dumps’ going on,” defense attorney Sasha Wass told Depp sternly.
Depp professed his innocence and called the incident a “mystery.”
One of the darkest episodes involves an allegedly high and drunk Depp scrawling messages to Heard on a mirror and wall with the blood of his severed finger.
Depp acknowledges dipping the finger in a can of paint to continue writing once the bleeding stopped.
But he denies tripping on ecstasy at the time and claims Heard slashed off the tip of his finger with a bottle during a particularly bad fight.
The defense says he hurt it while “completely destroying” the couple’s vacation home in Australia.
Depp said Thursday that he was experiencing “some kind of breakdown” and was feeling suicidal at the time.
Mark Stephens said both Depp and Heard had plenty to lose and little to gain from the proceedings.
“His reputation will be permanently stained if he is found to be abusive.”
And “if Heard is not to be believed, she will find it very hard to find work in Hollywood.”
British libel law puts the burden of proof on the defense and gives Depp the initial advantage.
But the judge told Heard her upcoming testimony would not be bound by “confidentiality restrictions” agreed in the divorce.
Depp may find it even harder to clear his name in a separate defamation lawsuit he filed over an op-ed about the alleged abuse that Heard wrote in The Washington Post.
That hearing is expected to begin in August in Virginia under US laws putting the burden of proof on Depp.