Unseen for 80 Years, Two Rare Sculptures by Pioneering Egyptian Modernist to Debut at Auction

This month, Sotheby’s will auction two early 20th-century sculptures by Egyptian artist Mahmoud Mokhtar that have been in the same family collection for eight decades. They will be sold during an online sale of 20th century art and Middle Eastern art this month, with bidding open from March 23–30.

The two works, titled Ibn El Balad (1910) and Arous El Nil (1929), were purchased from the artist by Egyptian politician and art collector Hafez Afifi Pasha. A former surgeon, Afifi Pasha acted as the Egyptian ambassador to London. He also served as the director of the Bank Misr and was appointed as the royal court chief under King Farouk in 1951. The two works coming to sale are from the politician’s family estate and are expected to reach a collective price of £210,000 ($292,000).

Mokhtar completed Ibn El Balad, a figurative sculpture based on a local Cairo boy, in his early career. Works of the sort, produced during the artist’s studies at the Egyptian School of Fine Arts in Cairo, have largely been lost. (Later, the artist moved to Paris to study at the École des Beaux-Arts in 1912.) Describing the 1910 sculpture, Mai Eldib, Sotheby’s specialist in modern and contemporary Middle Eastern art said it’s an example “any collector should aspire to have.”

The second piece, Arous El Nil, depicting a Pharaonic head of a woman, merges traditional Egyptian subject matter with European Art Deco. It attests to the merger of Egyptian and French influences that would eventually come to define Mokhtar’s mature style.

According to Sotheby’s statement on the sale, Afifi Pasha was one of Mokhtar’s main backers during the artist’s career, funding some of his seminal projects, including the sculpture Egypt Awakened, also known as Nahdat Misr (1920), which was made in response to Egyptian protests against British occupation at the end of WWI. The sculpture was later installed in the Bab el-Hadid Square (now Ramses Square) in Cairo in 1928. During this period, while Afifi Pasha served as the Minister of Foreign Affairs, there was a revival of artistic output throughout the country.

In addition to his financial support, Afifi was also a founding member of the Friends of Mahmoud Mokhtar Foundation, established after the artist’s abrupt death in 1934.

Over the course of his career spanning less than two decades, Mokhtar is believed to have made between 80–100 sculptures. Eldib said that, as many of his works were destroyed, it is rare for his art to come to auction.

In 2016, Sotheby’s set a record for the artist with the sale of Mokhtar’s sculpture On the Banks of the Nile (1931), which fetched £725,000 ($1 million) at the house’s London headquarters, surpassing its estimate of £120,000 ($172,380).

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