The president of the Iraqi Artist’s Society is on a mission to return a painting by Faeq Hassan—who he calls “Iraq’s Picasso”—to the Iraqi state. The 1968 painting, a dramatic depiction of Saladin’s famous 12th century conquest of Jerusalem from the Crusaders, was due to be auctioned at Christie’s Dubai last month, but was withdrawn after he sent a letter to the auction house. “I am like Sherlock Holmes,” says Qasim al-Sabti, the Artist’s Society president.
In the letter, sent on 4 March, Al-Sabti alleged that the painting had been stolen from the Iraqi Military Club in Baghdad (run by the Ministry of Defence) in the early 1990s and then “illegally smuggled and sold outside Iraq”. He asked the auction house to “help us return it to its rightful owners in Iraq”. Two weeks later, Christie’s withdrew the painting from its 18 March sale. According to Alexandra Kindermann, a senior communications director at Christie’s, “Since then the matter has been investigated by the Dubai authorities, who have been in contact with the consignor of the work and will be ruling over this case.”
Al-Sabti is working closely with Maysoon al-Damluji, an Iraqi parliament member and head of the commission for culture and information, who is championing the cause and has enlisted the help of Iraq’s foreign minister.
To facilitate the painting’s return, proof is required that it was in fact the property of the Iraqi Ministry of Defence. This is no mean feat: most of the Ministry’s records were burned and looted in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion.
For al-Sabti, the painting’s return is not only a matter of rightful ownership, but also one of Iraqi patrimony. “Faeq was a pioneer of Iraqi art, and was also one of my professors at the Baghdad College of Fine Arts,” he relates, “His work needs to be in an Iraqi museum so the next generation of artists can see it.”
But Al-Sabti’s artistic sleuthing may be more Don Quixote than Sherlock Holmes.
For the past month, al-Sabti has been conducting interviews, gathering documents from the Ministry of Defence and hunting down historical records to piece together the painting’s history. A former military officer told him that the painting had been stolen by a police chief from Saddam Hussein’s regime, and then sold by his son to an Iraqi gallerist in Jordan. Meanwhile, al-Sabti has been searching for a 1973 issue of al-Rawaq, a periodical formerly published by the Ministry of Culture that featured the painting on its cover.
The painting’s origins may be traced back to Iraq’s former president. According to Haydar Salem, a former curator at Baghdad’s Saddam Centre for the Arts (now the National Museum of Modern Art), it is one of three historical scenes by three Iraqi artists that the president Hassan al-Bakr, Saddam’s predecessor, commissioned in the late 1960s. Salem says that the Military Club gave the two other painting to the arts centre in the late 80s, while the one by Faeq Hassan remained at the Military Club until it disappeared in the early 90s.
Al-Sabti, who has run the Hewar Gallery in Baghdad for decades and has weathered invasions, occupations and terror attacks, notes sanguinely that “over 5,000 works of art have been stolen from Iraq”, mostly since 2003.
But for al-Sabti and many other Iraqis, the Faeq Hassan work has particular significance. “That painting is a famous one in Iraq and it’s part of our national heritage,” says al-Sabti. “It needs to be returned to us.”