Developing an interest in art at an early age, Valérie Didier-Hess got her start in the business realm of the art world as an intern at the London offices of Christie’s in 2005. Rising quickly through the ranks, in 2008 she transferred to Christie’s Dubai, where she is currently Director of Business Development. While working in the auction house’s Arab, Iranian and Turkish Modern and Contemporary Art department, she discovered the work of artist Mahmoud Saïd and after five years of research she has compiled the first published catalogue raisonné of a Middle Eastern artist, presenting the Egyptian modernist’s compelling paintings and works on paper. artBahrain contributing editor Paul Laster recently caught up with the executive and author to learn more about her personal history and profound fascination with Saïd’s art.

How did you develop an interest in art?

I was visiting museums and exhibitions in Paris with my mother as long as I can remember and I always loved painting and drawing, exhibiting and even selling (!) my works a couple of times. My grandmother’s husband taught me how to draw, being an excellent animal and botanic artist, and my godfather would always get me lavish art history books on various subjects for my birthdays. Art soon became my safe haven, whether practicing it or reading about it.

What do you most remember about your art history studies at Cambridge University and the Courtauld Institute of Art?

The professors, with whom I am still in touch more than 12 or 13 years later—Professor Jean-Michel Massing, Dr. Alyce Mahon, Dr. Cordula van Wyhe and Dr. Joanna Cannon. They conveyed their passion for their respective art subjects to their students and gave us direct access to some of Europe’s most prestigious art, whether in France, England, Belgium or Italy.

What was your first position in the art world?

The first internship was at the Louvre Museum in Paris, working in the research department of 17th and 18th century Italian painting and assisting the curator Stéphane Loire. For more than two months, I visited a different part of the Louvre museum at every lunch break, yet even that was not enough time to visit the entire museum!

Why did you decide to leave the museum world to work at Christie’s?

I didn’t really leave the museum world but I was discouraged to pursue a career in it because in France, to work as a curator in a museum you need to pass the ‘Concours National du Patrimoine,’ which is one of the toughest national exams and requires full time study, which I couldn’t afford at the time. The same goes for applying for jobs in museums abroad: you need a Ph.D., which again I could not afford to do back then.
The day of the London bombings, 7th July 2005, I was supposed to have an interview at the National Gallery of Art in London and after a three hour walk to the museum due to the shutdown of public transport, I reached my interview but two out of the three curators who were going to interview me had not made it into work, so the interview was cancelled, and they closed the assistant curator position that I applied for altogether. That same week I was offered the opportunity of doing a graduate internship at Christie’s in their King Street office in London, and I jumped on it.

What was your area of expertise when you first joined the auction house?

I did my graduate internship in the House Sales Department, the only department where there was space left, working for Orlando Rock, Andy Waters and Jane St George. In all honesty, it was a completely new area for me as the house sales I worked on were that of a prominent house collection from Eaton Square, predominantly English furniture, and the prestigious house collection of Daniel Wildenstein, mainly French furniture and objets d’art, with which I was much more familiar. Four months into my six-month-long internship, a job opening at Christie’s King Street as Junior Specialist came up in the department of Impressionist and Modern Art, which was one of my favorite periods in art history. I secured the position and worked for three years side-by-side with masterpieces by Picasso, Monet, Chagall, Renoir and others in the warehouse, educating my ‘expert’s eye’.

How did you become interested in modern and contemporary art from the MENAM region?

My father is French but spent the first fifteen years of his life in Tunisia and used to speak fluently Arabic. I was frustrated for him that he lost his Arabic and decided to attempt to learn it on my own during three months I spent in the hospital when I was 16. I fell in love with the calligraphy and I was keen to discover Middle Eastern culture, travelling to Tunisia, Jordan, Egypt and even Dubai back in 1996! When studying in Cambridge, I was disappointed that no aspect of Middle Eastern art was covered and considered doing an MA in Persian Illuminations at SOAS but my professors at Cambridge rightly pointed out to me that access to such manuscripts would be challenging for me, especially as a woman.
When I was offered to opportunity to move to Dubai in 2008, initially to cover for nine-month maternity leave (and here I am eight years later), I joined the Arab, Iranian and Turkish Modern and Contemporary Art department. This art was completely new to me—the first year, I could hardly pronounce let alone remember the names of artists we were selling but I was fascinated by the innovation and diversity of these artists, as well as by the way they dialogued in their own way both with their countries’ cultural heritage and Western Art, reconciling them into vibrant compositions.

Have you seen worldwide interest in the art of this region increase since you first became involved?

Yes, definitively—when I first arrived, it seemed that Lebanese were buying Lebanese Art; Egyptians were buying Egyptian Art; Syrians were buying Syrian Art, etc. Whereas now we have international buyers and consignors from around the globe—from Los Angeles to Singapore, from New York to Hong Kong, from Paris to Tehran, from London to the Gulf countries and from Geneva to Beirut and Cairo. In other words, the previously almost nationalistic database of buyers has now become more global but also slowly more ‘pan-Arab’ to some extent, with Lebanese buying Egyptian Art for example.

Where do you find the artworks for the sales, directly from artists and estates or mostly through collectors?

This is the biggest challenge of Christie’s Dubai and particularly of the Modern & Contemporary Art Department, as we source works predominantly from a melting-pot of collectors and artist’s estates, who are not easily found or easily reachable, and a few from dealers who are often also collectors, but who are located all around the world—we have sold works sourced from Argentina, Los Angeles, Minnesota, Rome, Belgium, Paris, London, Cairo, Beirut, Berlin, Dubai… and the list goes on.

When did you first come across the work of Mahmoud Saïd?

In 2010, Christie’s Dubai was entrusted with the sale of the collection of Dr. Mohamed Saïd Farsi, the former mayor of Jeddah who was also an avid collector of Modern Egyptian Art. Spread over two sales in April and October, the collection showcased the best examples of Modern Egyptian Art to ever come up for auction at the time, including a total of ten stunning works by Mahmoud Saïd—two of which, Les chadoufs (1934) and Les derviches tourneurs (1929), made history by breaking the artist’s records through the roof, selling respectively for $2.43 M (more than 20 times its pre-sale low estimate!) and $2.54 (almost 10 times its pre-sale low estimate!). Even before the sales took place, I was drawn by the warm and mystical light of these two paintings in particular, but also by that of Lever de soleil sur le Nil à Louxor (1945).

Were you instantly captivated?

Yes, completely—I wanted to see more of his works, read more about him and understand how he achieved this magical light that was so beautiful, so lyrical and so intriguing.

What makes him so fascinating for contemporary audiences?

In my opinion, it is precisely the contemporary and innovative approach he had at the time he was painting that attracts today’s audiences—the way in which he dialogued with Western Art to ultimately founding Egypt’s very own Modern Art. I also think that his aristocratic background—being Queen Farida’s uncle and an Egyptian Prime Minister’s son—fascinates people, as does the simply enchanting beauty of his paintings that celebrate and revive Egypt’s Golden Age, inducing people to perhaps reminisce about it.

How prolific was Saïd as an artist?

Due to his full-time position as a judge at the Mixed Tribunals of Egypt, Saïd only practiced art in his spare time. In theory, art remained a hobby until he resigned from his legal functions in 1947, yet in practice it was his passion, so his oeuvre is relatively prolific, bearing these facts in mind, as he produced more than 400 paintings and at least 375 sketches.

What led you to do a catalogue raisonné of his art?

In 2010, after discovering Saïd’s works through the collection of Dr. Mohamed Saïd Farsi, I was eager to learn more about him and his oeuvre. I was struck by the fact that his name had never come up in any art history course I had done, nor the names of any of the other Middle Eastern artists I came across at Christie’s for that matter. To my great disappointment, there was only one lavishly illustrated book on Mahmoud Saïd, Esmat Dawastashy’s 1997 monograph, which had solely been published in Arabic. Yet at the same time, I met Dr. Hussam Rashwan and as he described the artworks of his outstanding collection of Modern Egyptian Art, including Mahmoud Saïd works, I realized he was a living encyclopedia and had an unparalleled library on the subject.
My frustration at not being able to find a Wildenstein or Zervos volume on Saïd, which was our main tool for research in the Impressionist and Modern Art Department, combined with my encounter with such a passionate collector from Saïd’s hometown, Alexandria, led me to throw the subject on the table to Dr. Rashwan: let’s do a catalogue raisonné on his oeuvre, let’s track down all his works and share his wonderful compositions in a lavish English publication with the rest of the world?

How long have you worked on the catalogue raisonné and what’s the scope of it?

Following that conversation with Dr. Rashwan, I spent my spare time of the summer of 2011 archiving, researching and digging out any information I could find on Mahmoud Saïd and on his works. Using Esmat Dawastashy’s monograph as the skeleton of my research, I produced a spreadsheet listing all the works from his book, correcting and completing it wherever possible. Meanwhile, Dr. Rashwan was sending me copies of articles and books on the subject, and getting seminal articles translated from Arabic to English with the help of Suzi Beltagy.
At the same time, he was tracking down the works in Alexandria and Cairo, connecting with all the branches of the Saïd family and with the network of private collectors in Egypt. I focused on collectors in America, Europe and other parts of the Middle East, and every time we found a work, we organized for them to be professionally photographed. Thanks to the help of various branches of Saïd’s heirs, of private collectors, of museums and of auction houses, we progressively completed the initial spreadsheet, adding to it a section on works on paper and one on archival material.

I know that Saïd is celebrated for his portraits, nudes and landscapes, but what aspect of his work do you find most compelling?

That’s a difficult question as I am besotted by each of his paintings! However, I do have a deep fascination with his ‘Egyptian’ landscapes, especially the Nile scenes, because of the way he handles the light—whether it is the pastel light of sunrise, or the blinding daylight or the fiery sunset and its reflection in the water. In these scenes, he always includes a hint to traditional Egypt, whether it is the felucca, the ‘fellaha’, the fisherman, the ‘chadouf’, the palm tree or the donkey, and always in a very poetic way, as if he admires and glorifies them, despite his social status. 

His work is certainly well known in the Arab world, but what about in the West?

This is one of the tragedies of Modern Arab Art but also of Modern Iranian Art, at least for the time being. In my opinion, the lack of documentation and publications, especially in English, on Saïd and his contemporaries and followers are partly to be blamed for the West’s lack of interest in Mahmoud Saïd’s work, simply because the West is not aware of his oeuvre—this ‘hole’ in the history of art was one of the main catalyzers to produce the Mahmoud Saïd catalogue raisonné.
Why are there only (to my knowledge) two or three universities in the West in which the subject of Modern and Contemporary Middle Eastern is taught or even tackled? There is no doubt that the international market for Modern Arab and Iranian Art is very young—Christie’s Dubai celebrated its tenth anniversary last year, only having inaugurated its office with the first sale of Modern and Contemporary Middle Easter Art in May 2006—and Western museums only started very recently to acquire such works for their collections, possibly stimulated by the prestige and grandeur of Mathaf’s collections of Modern Arab Art in Doha. That’s why we chose SKIRA as our publisher as they have an international outreach so we hope the Mahmoud Saïd catalogue raisonné will help the West to fall under the spell of the Alexandrian master’s oeuvre.

There’s a museum dedicated to his work in Alexandra, right? How extensive is it?

Indeed, the Mahmoud Saïd Museum is located in Alexandria, in the artist’s family house. It is a beautiful ‘hotel particulier,’ which was sold to the government in 1970 by the artist’s widow, Samiha Riad, along with some objects and a collection of around forty paintings and a few sketches and photographs. The Mahmoud Saïd paintings include some intimate portraits of family members and friends, a wide array of landscapes, impressive female nude paintings and one of his most monumental compositions, most likely a commission of a historical subject, L’inauguration du canal de Suez (1946-1947). Today the Saïd family house also features a museum of works by Seif and Adham Wanly (first floor), and of Modern Egyptian Art masterpieces (basement floor), whilst the ground floor is dedicated to Mahmoud Saïd’s paintings.

Where else can we find his paintings?

Apart from finding his works in his own museum and in other major Egyptian museums and government entities, several prominent private collectors in Egypt own works by Mahmoud Saïd, namely Sherwet Shafei, the founder and owner of Safarkhan Gallery, who had the privilege of spending an entire day with Mahmoud Saïd in the early 1960s when she was working for the national Egyptian radio. Quite a few of Saïd’s works have also remained with his direct or indirect heirs, or in the families of some of the artist’s friends in Egypt, Europe and America. Finally, it is undeniable that the Mathaf, Arab Museum of Modern Art in Doha has the most impressive collection of Mahmoud Saïd paintings outside of Egypt and was the first non-Egyptian museum to acquire his works.

Will there be any exhibitions or programming related to the launch of the book?

Yes, my colleague Hala Khayat and I are putting together a small exhibition of Mahmoud Saïd works, which will be on view at the Jumeirah Emirates Towers Hotel in Dubai during the Art Week and Art Dubai, and in conjunction with Christie’s Dubai sales on 18th and 19th March 2017. Christie’s was one of the book’s sponsors and will be officially launching the book on the 15th March, followed by a second book launch at Art Dubai (Modern) the next day and one in Cairo and Alexandria around the 8th April 2017, to celebrate the 120th anniversary of Mahmoud Saïd’s birth.

What’s your next project?

To be confirmed, quite a few in the pipeline… but one of them is keeping the Mahmoud Saïd website (www.mahmoud-said.com) up to date with news, amendments and discoveries, and to think about publishing an Arabic translation of the Mahmoud Saïd catalogue raisonné.