Orientalist Masterpieces Sale has Unexpected Result

May 2, 2012 Updated: September 29, 2015
Epoch Times Photo

NEW YORK—Sometimes the hype is bigger than the market. While “The Scholar,” by Osman Hamdy Bey (1842–1910), was the leading Orientalist masterpiece—estimated at $5 million to $8 million—in a recent Sotheby’s auction, the work didn’t sell.

Sotheby’s created a stand-alone, masterpiece Orientalist sale to coincide with the three-day series of auctions titled “Turkish and Islamic Week: Classic to Contemporary.” The sales concluded on April 26 in London, with 23 of the 33 works in the auction sold.

Works by Osman Hamdy Bey (1842–1910) and Ivan Aivazovsky (1817–1900) were the headliners of the sale. They were considered extremely rare and important masterpieces.

Aivazovsky’s work “View of Constantinople and the Bosphorus,” sold for $5.2 million, well over its pre-sale estimate of $2 million to $3 million.

Epoch Times Photo

However, “The Scholar,” by Bey, estimated at $5 million to $8 million, didn’t sell.

“Great works by Hamdy Bey are exceptionally rare, with the added fascination that they provide a Turk’s, rather than an outsider’s, interpretation of life in the region,” said Claude Piening, head of Sotheby’s Orientalist paintings department in the pre-sale press release. 

That fascination apparently wasn’t enough. The sale achieved $9.1 million in total.

Description From Sotheby’s

The Ottoman Empire and Turkey have fascinated Western artists for centuries. As early as the 18th century, official painters attached to Western embassies and missions to the Ottoman Court began recording local landscapes, costumes, and diplomatic encounters, giving rise to a whole new genre in Western art called Orientalism. It is a genre that spread rapidly in the 19th century beyond the Ottoman lands, to encompass North Africa, Egypt, and the Levant.

Today, these paintings form an invaluable visual record of the manners and mores of Turkish and Middle Eastern culture before the dawn of photography. This style of painting was later adopted by Turkish painters to depict their own culture in new ways.

The two highlights of Sotheby’s Orientalist sale, Ivan Aivazovsky’s “View of Constantinople and the Bosphorus” and Osman Hamdy Bey’s “The Scholar,” respectively epitomize both viewpoints, the former an expression of a foreigner’s fascination for the Ottoman capital, the latter an intimate portrayal of Turkish life by a Turkish painter.

Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky (Russian, 1917–1900) was one of the most talented practitioners of this period. “View of Constantinople and the Bosphorus,” an oil on canvas, is one of the artist’s most spectacular paintings and a tour de force in its evocation of light and atmosphere.

“The Scholar” is the first of two such known compositions by Osman Hamdy Bey (1842–1910) depicting a reclining man at study before a richly detailed background. Executed in 1878, it predates a second, later version in the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, by 27 years and shows the young artist at the very height of his powers.

Born in Constantinople and trained in Paris, Hamdy Bey was a central figure in the cultural life of the Ottoman Empire, having served in diplomatic positions on his return from the French capital and later becoming the founder and director of the Academy of Fine Arts in Istanbul.

He was the first Turkish artist to fully embrace an academic, European style.

This work eloquently combines the subjects and techniques of two distinctly different worlds. An Orientalist subject is explored and seen through the eyes of an artist intimately familiar with the culture he documents.

Source: Sotheby’s