Sotheby’s auction house was buzzing recently as it showcased a collection belonging to the late British painter and printmaker Howard Hodgkin.

Celebrity collectors are often the key to success in the world of art. Both Islamic and Southeast Asian art have failed to catch the attention of A-listers eager to show their interest in parts of the world that are of more interest politically than culturally. Southeast Asia emits such a low signal on the international art radar, it barely exists; the Islamic heartlands attract much higher prices but from collectors who choose to be invisible until they open yet another museum.

The new Louvre in Abu Dhabi features items that have been collected by the ruling family but the most impressive displays are often courtesy of the Paris head office of the Louvre brand. There’s a wonderful Ottoman helmet in the shape of a turban that will have Islamic-art enthusiasts excited while everyone else heads straight for the Egyptian mummies and surprises such as ‘Whistler’s Mother’.

Where two fortunes meet — cultural and financial — there are bound to be artistic fireworks. The Louvre Abu Dhabi has this. It’s also possible for a fairly successful recently deceased artist to have an interesting collection. (Sir) Howard Hodgkin may not have been universally known when he died earlier this year, but he did draw a large crowd to Sotheby’s auction house.

The British painter and printmaker’s first love was the art of India. There is a popular and possibly true story that his romance with the East started as a 14-year-old Eton schoolboy, when he bought an Indian miniature. They were cheaper then, but he probably had more pocket money than many. Most of the lots at the recent auction were acquired more recently than that; some were objects of inspiration for the length of his career. Just as his paintings were abstract, so was much of his collection.


A typically idiosyncratic Hodgkin arrangement of Iznik and Damascus tiles.

AN ECLECTIC TREASURE TROVE

He loved textiles. There were Renaissance tapestries in the sale that highlighted how affordable these items really are. And there was a cloth from the Malay Archipelago. Needless to say, for such a cosmopolitan, metrosexual man as Sir Howard, it was a sarong. A late 19th/early 20th century piece from Java, it embodies all the abstract, colourful qualities that filled his paintings. A proliferation of flowers, leaves and meandering tendrils, it embodies the Southeast Asian contribution to Islamic aesthetics. The realised price was around RM8,000.

The other items from the Islamic world that fascinated him, and have a lot in common with his own output, were Iznik and other tiles from the Ottoman, Persian and Mughal empires. It’s rare to see so many outside a museum. His display technique was far from the museological approach. They appear to have been placed on the walls of his house, as they would in 17th century Ottoman times, albeit as solitary tiles removed the huge expanses that they were originally part of. Without spotlights or showcases, they become part of the furniture — among the most colourful forms of wall decoration that has ever existed.


Southeast Asian art made a rare showing in the form of a deliciously florid batik sarong from Java.

His appreciation for the equally jewel-like work of Mughal and other Indian painters was also apparent at the auction. Curiously, the lot that really electrified the auction room had no colour at all. It was a captivating but very small ink drawing of a wild boar — perhaps not the most Islamic of themes although the feral variety of pig is generally a herbivore and not always subject to the same abhorrence as its omnivorous cousin.

The fineness of the work by an anonymous Albrecht Durer of the Subcontinent is an absolute delight. To get so much life out of a 5cm-high subject is a remarkable achievement, greatly appreciated by buyers who pushed the price up to almost 10 times the upper estimate of around RM6,000. Its exhibition history may have helped too, having travelled from Oxford to Cardiff to Toronto, where it was a much-admired exhibit at the Aga Khan Museum of Islamic art and culture.


A north Indian drawing of a boar that charmed the audience at Sotheby’s.

This auction would have been of far more interest for elephant lovers, with countless lots depicting an animal that must have meant a great deal to the artist. One might have thought that the preponderance of pachyderms would have killed demand, but not all. Prices kept going up.

There was rather less excitement generated for the many tiles, including the collectors’ favourites, mainly Iznik and Kashan. He even collected 19th century European copies of Iznik, such as a moderately convincing Cantagalli tile. Some might wonder whether Hodgkin had been taken in by it, although with a maker’s stamp on the back, probably not. As with many of the genuinely Islamic-world tiles, it failed to sell.


Howard Hodgkin rarely tackled Islamic themes as directly as this painting that relates to the costumes of Layla and Majnun.

LEADER IN THE ART FIELD

This was not really an auction for Islamic-art collectors, more for aficionados of contemporary British art. Seeing how the artist lived and the influences on his work shed more light on a man who has already been the subject of a major exhibition this year. We now know details such as his enthusiasm for Agatha Christie. Just in time for the release of the latest Orient Express film, Hodgkin’s 117-volume library of Christie’s output went for 10 times its upper estimate. His place as a leader in the art field was consolidated by this sale as much as the detective writer’s was many years ago.

The really big prices were not for Hodgkin’s smallish works, however. Among British artists, it was Patrick Caulfield who excelled, with the price of one painting going above half a million pounds. Even more was paid for a painting that some in attendance might have thought was Indian folk art to match the painted suitcase from the 1980s that had been estimated around RM1,000.

Bhupen Khakhar’s borderline-naive ‘De-luxe Tailors’ soared to RM6 million. It was gratifying to see that when Hodgkin tackled a theme with a really Muslim background, i.e. the story of Layla and Majnun, despite the small size of the acrylic painting (38 x 30 centimetres), it more than doubled the estimate by selling for £20,000.

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