Auction Results: Sotheby’s 20th Century Art / Middle East

Liz Catalano
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The 20th Century Art / Middle East auction of contemporary fine art, presented by Sotheby’s in London, closed on March 31st with a sale total of GBP 2.2 million (USD 2.7 million). It was converted from a live to an online-only sale, following the auction house’s movement away from in-person events. According to a Sotheby’s press release, 60% of the lots crossed their high estimates. 

Among the auction’s surprises was an abstract painting from Mohamed Melehi. Titled The Blacks, this painting from the contemporary Moroccan artist had a pre-sale estimate of GBP 55,000 – 65,000 (USD 69,000 – 81,000). After 30 bids, it sold for GBP 399,000 (USD 494,000), more than six times the high estimate. 

Mohamed Melehi, The Blacks. Image from Sotheby’s.
Mohamed Melehi, The Blacks. Image from Sotheby’s.

This result sets a new auction record for Melehi, twice the previous one set in 2018. Melehi has only recently risen to global prominence, particularly after a solo exhibition at London’s Mosaic Rooms last year. That show, which ran from April to June, drew attention to Melehi and the radical Casablanca Art School of the 1960s and 70s. His style helped create a specifically Moroccan flavor of Modernism, stemming from a rejection of colonialist styles and the embrace of traditional Berber culture. “Hard-edge painting made me rediscover the abstraction inherent in Islamic art,” Melehi has stated. “My question was, what could we find in Morocco that was an expression of modernism?”

The Blacks, dated 1963, was created while Melehi was studying in New York. The piece shows a color-block view of the city, with skyscrapers reduced to clean lines of yellow, black, and navy blue. It precedes his better-known paintings of colorful waves, which are his trademark contribution to Moroccan Modernism. Melehi has been increasingly recognized in the global market, and the recent Sotheby’s auction reflects this trend. Over the last five years, the majority of his paintings have realized prices between EUR 20,000 and 50,000 (USD 22,000 – 54,000). 

Mahmoud Sabri, A Family of Farmers, early 1960s. Image from Sotheby’s.
Mahmoud Sabri, A Family of Farmers, early 1960s. Image from Sotheby’s.

This piece and several others helped create a notable success for Sotheby’s first online-only auction of Modern Middle Eastern art. Works from Farid Belkahia, Mahyeddine Baya, Naim Ismail, and Mahmoud Sabri also showed strong results. Over half of the auction’s buyers were from the Middle East and Northern Africa region, representing more than 23 countries. Over 30% of bidders were under the age of 40. 

The promising success of this auction comes during a time of uncertainty for the art world, particularly as more auction houses, galleries, and museums postpone or cancel events due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Christie’s and Phillips have both rescheduled their “gigaweek” sales for June, and Sotheby’s has furloughed around 200 workers within the last several weeks. Many cultural institutions are bracing themselves for financial losses, while auction houses continue to adapt to the online landscape.

However, other Sotheby’s auctions have recently benefited from virtual bidding: a mid-season Design sale sold 82 percent of its lots and brought in $4 million. Upcoming auctions will include a “Vine to Online” event and an RM Sotheby’s online sale of a Porsche Speedster benefiting COVID-19 relief efforts.

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