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The real McCoy
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 01 - 11 - 2007

Christie's attempt to auction a painting by Mahmoud Said in Dubai that should have been hanging in the Egyptian Embassy in Washington focussed attention on the booming market for modern Egyptian art. Dena Rashed explores the seamier side of a growing business
The appearance of Mahmoud Said's 1932 painting "The girl with the green eyes" among works scheduled to be auctioned at Christie's on 31 October raised many eyebrows. The oil painting on panel, which was bought by the Egyptian government from the artist in 1950 for LE30, is supposed to be hanging in the Egyptian Embassy in Washington. Christie's had placed an estimate of between $50,000 and $70,000 on the portrait before it was withdrawn from the sale after the Egyptian government enlisted the help of Interpol. The sale of a second painting by Said, the "Girl with red headscarf" of 1947, however, went ahead, together with 17 paintings by Egyptian painters.
While details of how the painting left the premises of the Egyptian Embassy in Washington are still being investigated, the case has cast a spotlight on the growing popularity of 20th century and contemporary Egyptian art, and the growing market for such works. Christie's has already held two auctions of modern art from the Arab world and Iran, in May 2006 and February 2007. The first netted sales of $2.2 million, the second $4 million. And the highlight of the third sale is Egyptian artist Ahmed Mustafa's "Quranic Polyptych", nine panels painted in 1995, which has a sale estimate of $300,000 to $350,000.
The booming international market for contemporary work from the region has inevitably impacted closer to home, with prices commanded by the first generation of Egypt's 20th century pioneers skyrocketing. There are now more collectors than ever, and more dealers to cater for them. Yet this growing market exists in the absence of any clear rules.
According to one collector, who deals occasionally, the market is at best haphazard, and there is no obvious way to check the provenance of individual works.
"Many art books have tended to be written by amateurs, yet the market now depends on these books," she told Al-Ahram Weekly, speaking on condition of anonymity. And it is, she reveals, a burgeoning market.
"I get people coming to my house and saying I want this number of paintings for this amount of money. They want to hang them on the walls of their villas because that's what their friends are doing. They get involved in buying without really knowing anything about the paintings."
This sudden interest in art, she says, amid her own collection which includes works by Adham and Seif Wanly, Mahmoud Said, Bikar, Hamed Nada, Gazebiya Sirry and others, can be dated back to the theft of a Van Gogh from the Mahmoud Khalil Museum. Suddenly, she argues, everyone knew just how much a painting could be worth, and they all wanted a piece of the action.
Works by local artists that might have sold for LE1,000 in the 1980s can now command prices of LE100,000 and more. And it is not only dealers who are attempting to profit from such price increases. If the market for relatively recent Egyptian art is booming, so too is the market for copies of such art.
Last year Mai Maein shelled out LE1.6 million for 18 paintings. She did not consult an expert before buying the pictures. "I trusted the source, a woman who had a reputable name on the art scene, and a painter with whom she was well acquainted. But after other people had seen the paintings and given their opinions I realised that I had bought a collection of forgeries."
The people from whom Maein bought the paintings were eventually sentenced to prison terms of three and a half years, only to have the sentences overturned on appeal.
"I can't understand how this happened," says a disbelieving Maein. "The widow of Abdel-Hadi El-Gazzar says the painting supposedly by him that I bought is a fake, and she knows his paintings by heart. Hassan Suleiman also testified that one of the paintings I bought, allegedly by him, is a forgery. Yet still the accused were freed."
During the trial, the prosecutor-general set up a committee to examine the paintings. It consisted, says Mohsen Shaalan, head of the sector of fine arts at the Ministry of Culture, of Hamdi Abdullah, Mohsen Attia and Ezzeddin Naguib, all of whom agreed the paintings were forgeries. Not only that, they were particularly bad forgeries. "The person who was responsible really needed a basic painting course," says Shaalan.
One of the defendants in the case has since died, but Maein is still appealing the verdict that quashed the sentence against a painter, who was also involved in the sale. She could pursue the case in the civil courts in an attempt to have her money returned but has opted against this. "Basically," says Maein, "I am appealing because I want forgery to be criminalised."
Shaalan agrees that the case should end up in a criminal court. "Forging paintings is as serious as forging money. These people ruin our heritage and should be held to account. I hope that this case sets a legal precedent and criminalises such forgery once and for all."
The presence of copies, argues Shaalan, distorts the nascent art market. "Forgeries impact on the entire art scene, on the painters as much as on people who might want to buy art but who are now sceptical that what they are buying is the real thing."
Many people have an interest in the outcome of Maein's case, among them other purchasers of forged works. "People who discover they have bought fakes either remain silent, because they cannot prove it, or they circulate the paintings back onto the market in an attempt to recoup their own outlay. Maein preferred to take the long road and report the whole thing to the police which, in many ways, is the hardest choice."
The collector and occasional dealer agrees. Since Maein's case hit the headlines, many people have sought her help in checking that the paintings they have bought are authentic. "Out of an average of 10 paintings I am asked to look at each month five or six are fakes," she says.
What, though, should the owners do in such cases? Reporting the incident to the police is, she says, often the last thing the buyers of forgeries consider, not least because proving the authenticity or otherwise of works of art is so difficult. Tracing the provenance of 20th century Egyptian paintings is a near impossible task given the absence of documentation establishing a history of ownership. And dead artists cannot vouch for their own work.
How, then, can she be so sure that so many of the paintings she sees are forgeries?
"We are talking about art," she says. "I feel it when I see the works. I have studied art, I was taught by many of the painters involved and I have been looking at their work for 30 years."
Technology can also help in establishing authenticity. "We can do infrared scans that reveal new layers or fresh paint and that help is sometimes useful in uncovering forgeries," says Shaalan. In Maein's case, though, expert opinion was considered sufficient.
Wagdy Habashy, the former head of the Egyptian Civilisation Museum at the Opera House and himself a painter, believes that rules for the copying of paintings should be fixed so as to avoid future confusion. "There is no problem in imitating art. Problems arise only when these copies are passed off as the original." He also thinks it is time that a database of important Egyptian works be compiled to help in establishing their provenance.
"There has to be a solution. What we have now is not a real market. There are no accepted criteria when it comes to prices, and in the absence of transparency the market is prey to the whims of dealers," says Youssef Kamel, son of the late painter Kamel Mustafa and a grandson of Youssef Kamel.
Fifteen years ago he switched from collecting antiques to collecting his father's work. "I came to know families that were selling paintings. The problem was that when people got to know that I was collecting my father's work they started to raise the prices they were asking."
Many dealers, he says, are far from professional. The prices they quote seem to have little to do with the objects they are selling and they fail to distinguish between major works and incidental pieces. In the course of his collecting, Youssef has also encountered many forgeries of his father's paintings. Criminalising the production of fakes, he argues, is the only way to solve the problem.
The informal nature of the art market, and the sometimes notorious secrecy of collectors and dealers, all contribute to the problem. Yet without a generally accepted way of tracing ownership and establishing a provenance for works that come up for sale the dilemmas afflicting the market are bound to persist.
The Ministry of Culture is seeking to tackle the problem by creating the infrastructure necessary to document works of art. "We try to encourage painters and designers to come to us and document their work. We photograph it so there is a pictorial record that will help in the future in guaranteeing their property rights," says Shaalan.
The ministry is also seeking to establish a system of certification, though this is likely to prove problematic given how few works of art come with the necessary documentation. Receipts are few and far between, and it is often impossible for owners to prove exactly where a particular painting came from.
"I still buy paintings," says Maein, "but only those that come with the relevant documents, and even then I want an expert opinion first."
Interest in art is booming, and for those with an eye for detail and experience it will remain a lucrative area. "The market will continue to grow," insists the dealer/collector, "and for many people art is an investment. For others, though, it can be a form of money laundering. They hang their cash on their walls and if anyone asks how they acquired so much they can say oh, family inheritance. And in the absence of documents or any generally accepted way of establishing provenance, who can contradict them?"


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