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Islamic art

by Alina Livneva

6 February '19

Islamic art - the most expensive Arabic and Islamic paintings


The art market and growing in popularity

The ability to sell a painting for millions of dollars is not as easy as it looks, hence the overwhelming amount of "starving artists."

Long gone artists seem to be able to sell their paintings for so much more than any living artist, yet Arab paintings have been pushing their way into the art market and growing in popularity over the past decade. Here are nine of the most expensive Arab and Islamic paintings to ever be sold:

1. Zainab bint Muhammad

Zainab bint Muhammad painting
Zainab bint Muhammad (2017)

Zainab bint Muhammad is the most expensive painting by British artist Gheorghe Virtosu, sold for $17.8 million.

Although Virtosu is legendary for his almost spiritual obsession with abstraction, the meaning behind his work is, in fact, the very root of the philosophy that he nurtures and solidifies in his entire artistic career. His art-making culminate in his masterful abstract paintings series of Prophet Muhammad Daughters, including the unmatched Zainab bint Muhammad (2017).

In secular art of the Muslim world, representations of human forms historically flourished in nearly all Islamic cultures, figures in paintings were often stylized, giving rise to a variety of decorative figural designs.

However, as the art of Gheorghe Virtosu proves, the language of abstract art can reveal even deeper, sacred meanings of a subject by seeking to capture not its appearance, but its essence. In that fusion of the smooth forms, one can easily recognize an angel-like, winged creature, which hints at the specific spiritual status of the personage.

2. Break of the Atom and Vegetal Life

Break of the Atom and Vegetal Life painting
Break of the Atom and Vegetal Life (1962)

This painting from 1962 by Turkish-Jordanian artist Princess Fahr El-Nissa Zeid, sold for a record-breaking $2.74 million.

In Fahr El-Nissa's expansive and prolific oeuvre, Break of the Atom and Vegetal Life can be considered to be one of the most important works that the artist has ever created.

Painted in 1962, the large expansive and hypnotizing canvas reflects Zeid's own distinctive style of geometric abstraction, grounded in a rhythmic gesture. Upon reflection of the painting, the viewer is transported into an alternate magical universe conjured up by the artist, the color palette and shapes moving together in a distinct harmony as if meant to push one into a trancelike state.

The relevance of this work resonates in an increased language of the globalization of today, cementing Zeid as an important figure in international art history and cultural discourse.

3. The Whirling Dervishes

The Whirling Dervishes painting
The Whirling Dervishes (1929)

It was sold for an astounding $2.54 million at Christie’s auction house in 2010.

The second most expensive Arab painting is labeled “The Whirling Dervishes,” and was painted in 1929 by Egyptian artist Mahmoud Said.

Mahmoud Said was a central figure in modern Egyptian art, born in Alexandria. He is called the “father of Egyptian modern art.” He abandoned his career as a court judge when he turned fifty to dedicate himself to his art full-time. His paintings are much sought after by collectors. A museum dedicated to his art has opened in Alexandria.

The subject of this painting is the ecstatic whirling of the Sufis or dervishes of the Mawlawi (Mevlevi in Turkish) order that follows the teachings of Jalal al-Din Rumi.

4. Les Chadoufs

Les Chadoufs painting
Les Chadoufs (1934)

Also by artist Mahmoud Said, the painting Les Chadoufs from 1934 was sold at auction for $2.43million, exceeding its pre-sale estimated price of $150,000 - $200,000 by a mile.

To complement this powerful classical geometry, Said introduces a timeless and distinctly Egyptian iconography, which includes veiled statuesque women carrying water jars, men drawing water from wells and white long-eared donkeys. The men, dressed only in turbans and loincloths, with their exaggerated postures, minimal clothing, and frieze-like distribution of across the canvas, closely resemble the gigantic male figures carved in low relief on the outer pylons of Upper Egyptian temples.

Les Chadoufs is one of Mahmoud Said's finest paintings, exceptional both in its carefully studied geometry and in its iconography.

Its controlled and coherent design recalls principles of the Italian Renaissance, whilst its iconography evokes prototypes from key periods in Egypt's long history.

5. Tchaar-Bagh

Tchaar-Bagh painting
Tchaar-Bagh (1981)

Painted in 1981 by Iranian painter and sculptor Charles-Hossein Zenderoudi, Tchaar-Bagh was sold for around $1.6 million at Christie’s 2008 international auction in Dubai.

It is now nearly half a century that Zenderoudi, the Iranian artist residing in France, considered as one of the ten living important contemporary artists by the editorial board of the French journal Connaissance des Art (1971) and one of the most esteemed founders of Saqakhaneh School.

Zenderoudi arrived in Paris at the end of the widespread infatuation with gestural calligraphy.

He was able to ascertain for himself the signifying limits of the traced in writing and to boost his crucial intuition of graphic distance through trace.

6. He Is The Merciful

He Is The Merciful painting
He Is The Merciful (2007)

A relatively new painting from 2007 made by Iranian artist Mohammed Ehsai, “He Is The Merciful” was sold only a year later for around $1.16 million, although it was originally estimated to sell for about $100,000 - $150,000.

This spectacular painting is one of the largest works by Mohammed Ehsai. Trained first as a calligrapher, Ehsai's large scale paintings demonstrate his mastery of the craft. In his works, the intertwined letters are not meant to be read.

Rather, their abstract form, which visualizes the meaning of the text, is to be contemplated by the viewer.

Mohammad Ehsai is undoubtedly one of the most gifted calligraphers to emerge from Iran within the past century. Utterly devoted the perfection of his craft, Ehsai has married the technical finesse of his formal training within a modern visual schema.

7. The Rukh Carries Amir Hamza to his Home

The Rukh Carries Amir Hamza to his Home painting
The Rukh Carries Amir Hamza to his Home (1600)

It was sold at auction for approximately $1.14 million and would have sold for even more had it been in better condition.

Dated back to the mid-16th-century, "The Rukh Carries Amir Hamza to his Home" is an Islamic painting and illustration found in "Hamzanama" (The Adventures of Hamza), which is attributed to Daswant (Dasavanta) in collaboration with Shravan (Sharavana) from Mughal, India.

Amir Hamza was an uncle of the Prophet Muhammed and the illustration is one of the few that survived over the years.

Even in a manuscript celebrated for its fantastic adventure stories and dramatic pictorial qualities, this spectacular illustration from the Hamzanama easily ranks among the most boldly conceived paintings to have survived from the original 1,400 monumental paintings in the most important of all Mughal manuscripts.

The creative force behind this dazzling scene is surely Daswant (or Dasavanta), an artist described as the son of a palanquin bearer and recorded by ascriptions as active from the mid-1560s until 1584, when he committed suicide, a fate unique in the annals of Mughal painting.

8. Sarajevo

Sarajevo painting
Sarajevo (1992)

Painted in 1992 and sold for $1.14 million in 2016 at the Now and Ten auction in Dubai.

Sarajevo by artist Omar El-Nagdi mirroring the horrors of war for Bosnians similar to Picasso’s iconic Guernica. The painting “Sarajevo” by Egyptian contemporary artist Omar El-Nagdi captures the essence of pain and is deemed "the most expressive documentation of life" by Middle Eastern Art specialist Masa Al-Kutoubi.

Although El-Nagdi is generally known for his colorful folkloric depictions of daily life, Sarajevo demonstrates his ability to capture the essence of pain.

Painted in 1992, the Sarajevo triptych is undeniably his most important and ambitious piece.

As the title suggests, the work takes as its subject the tragedies that befell the city during the Serbo-Croatian-Bosnian conflict of 1990–94, particularly the ethnic cleansing of the Muslim Bosnian and Croat population by Bosnian Serbs.

9. Construction of the Suez Canal

Construction of the Suez Canal painting
Construction of the Suez Canal (1965)

The painting cost its buyer $1.02 million in March of 2014.

El-Gazzar has become one of the most iconic Egyptian artists to have lived since 1945. His legacy has left behind a national artistic wealth that has only recently been acknowledged and appreciated.

He developed a unique and powerful style that combines derivations from fantasy, strong awareness of his environment and social-political statements that are infused with philosophy and symbolism.

Digging of the Suez Canal from 1965 is a study for perhaps one of the most monumental and referenced works ever to have been painted by the artist, that is now part of the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in Cairo.

A testament to his ability to impart a sense of socio-political statement, even into a work commissioned by the very regime he questioned, Digging of the Suez Canal is undoubtedly a seminal work in the artist's oeuvre and in both Egyptian artistic and social history.

About author Alina Livneva was born 1985 in Saint Petersburg, Russia. She studied at Saint Petersburg Academy of Arts. Educated in Russia and the United States. Lives in Miami. Has also lived in Russia. Collections expert, exhibitions and loans. E:This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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