A masterpiece by late-Ottoman-era Turkish artist Osman Hamdi Bey is set to be sold for a record price during an auction this spring. Antik A.Ş., one of the leading auction houses in Turkey, announced that the oil canvas piece, titled "Cami Önü" (Green Mosque), has a starting price of TL 10 million (roughly $3.4 million).
A pioneer of the maturation of Western art during the Ottoman Empire, Osman Hamdi Bey (1842-1910) was known not only for his paintings, but also for his contributions to the fields of archaeology and museology.
Speaking to Anadolu Agency (AA), Dr. Edhem Eldem, a history professor at Columbia University, said that Osman Hamdi is a significant figure in Turkish culture.
"As one of the most widely documented and arguably 'local' artists of his era, Osman Hamdi naturally stands at the very top of this artistic hierarchy," said Eldem. "Not only as an archaeologist but as the organizer of this institution, which is necessary for the establishment of Ottoman-era art as a discipline and for the protection of Turkish heritage from looters and potential destruction, the extraordinary prices fetched by Osman Hamdi's paintings are reflective of the intricate specifications placed on art in the Turkish market."
Eldem, the grandson of Osman Hamdi's niece Azize Hanım, and author of many biographies of the artist, says that the Turkish art market is "recent and still underdeveloped, lagging behind the international market and still trying to set its own standards. With very little artwork from the nineteenth century available, practically any artwork painted during the era of the Ottoman Empire acquires an inflated value."
The Colombia University professor also points out the socio-economic aspect of the issue - when a burgeoning Turkish middle class fuels demand for expensive fine art, "in the shape of a moneyed bourgeoisie that has developed since the liberal turn of the 1980s and wants to acquire art as a form of investment and conspicuous consumption."
Turgay Artam, chairman of the Istanbul-based auction house Antik A.Ş., told AA that "Camii Önü" is one of the most important pieces in Turkish art.
"With its fine details and careful depictions of Ottoman figures, [Camii Önü] is a moving art form; [the painting] takes viewers on a journey through the Ottoman experience of the 1800s," Artam says.
The 134-year-old painting depicts 16 Ottoman characters including men, veiled women and merchants - as well as beggars in front of Turkey's famous Green Mosque in the northwestern city of Bursa, the first capital of the Ottoman Empire.
According to Eldem, the importance of the painting is evident in its theme: "[Camii Önü] is one of the first examples of a recurring theme that Osman Hamid would exploit and develop for another 10 to 15 years."
One of the most widely known oil-canvas pieces by Osman Hamdi, the painting is likely to fetch a very high price at auction. A likely outcome, according to Eldem, "for the simple reason that there are practically no Osman Hamdi paintings left on the market."
"There are constantly new fortunes being made in Turkey, which increases the likelihood of aggressive bids. To this, we should add the growing number of private collections being turned into private museums [which] are even more likely to fight over this chance to have a piece of Osman Hamdi," Eldem adds.
Nestled between East and West?
Although Eldem does not agree, some scholars view Osman Hamdi as a person torn between East and West - a victim of the Westernization dilemma faced during his era.
"The cultural and social choices he made clearly leaned in the direction of the West, with a vision of the East that could range from curiosity to criticism, and aesthetic appreciation to outright rejection. That is what made him an Orientalist - even if he had a good dose of nineteenth-century patriotism in him which set him apart from his Western contemporaries. Yet all of this art was done with a great deal of self-assurance and, eventually, success rather than victimization. As to the critical assessment of his work, which is also tainted with Orientalist clichés and reluctant acceptance, it rests on too much retrospect and hindsight based on contemporary concerns."
One of the famed paintings of Osman Hamdi titled, "The Tortoise Trainer" dates back to 1906 and was sold in 2004 for a record TL 5.5 million by Antik A.Ş., now joining the collection of the Istanbul-based Pera Museum.
Another painting, Istanbul Hanımefendisi (The Lady of Constantinople), was sold in 2008 for $6.5 million at the Sotheby's auction in London - another record for the artist. His painting "Vazo Yerleştiren Kız" (A Girl Arranging a Vase for Flowers) was sold by Antik A.S. in 2012 for TL 3.2 million, with another London auction resulting in the successful selling of the artist's "Kuran Okuyan Adam" (Man Reading the Quran) for £3 million ($4.3 million) again in 2012. The Louvre museum in Abu Dhabi bought his artwork titled, "A Young Emir Studying." For Eldem, Osman Hamdi - "the very unique representative of modernity in Ottoman history" - is remembered as an artist as much as for the "sensational aspect of the prices his works have fetched recently."