Sotheby’s has unveiled a painting by Iranian postwar artist Bahman Mohassess that will be offered at auction this month. The painting will be sold during the house’s upcoming cross-category London sale titled “Modern Renaissance,” alongside works by Edvard Munch, David Hockney, and Arshile Gorky.
Minotauro sulla riva del mare (1977) is now coming to the market for the first time under the joint-ownership of the artist’s estate, run by his heirs Leyla and Rooja Mohassessy and the Italy-based Bruni family, which has held the work for three decades. The piece is expected to achieve a price between £350,000–£450,000 ($488,100–$627,600).
The work was formerly owned by Mohassess’s close friend, Francesco Bruni, who assisted the artist in making bronze sculptures and ran the Italian art studio, the Bruni foundry. Mohassess “deserves to be in a global international auction,” Baghestani said.
Mohassess took his cues from Pablo Picasso, Max Ernst, Henry Moore, and Alberto Giacometti; his anthropomorphic figures have also been compared to Francis Bacon, who, like Mohassess, was openly gay. The reclusive artist moved to Rome in the late 1960s, following an American-backed coup ousting Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh. (Some of Mohassess’s public works were destroyed around this time.)
In Italy, Mohassess drew his inspiration from Cubism, Surrealism, and Greek mythology, integrating them with their aesthetics with references to his own Iranian heritage. His art of the era was able to depict nude figures and erotic subject matter—something which would have been taboo in his home country during the 1960s-70s, according to Baghestani. Works such as Minotauro sulla riva del mare, which depicts the Surrealist-favored minotaur character, rarely come to auction.
“Mohassess embraces very different radical forms of expression,” said Ashkan Baghestani, Sotheby’s head of sales and director for Middle Eastern and contemporary art. “The most important is that he refused to abide by any rules or conform to any movement.”
Mohassess’s market has grown in recent years as European institutions began paying more attention to his art. In 2014, he was included in the exhibition “Unedited History” at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. That same year, Tate Modern acquired a group of five 1966 gouache paintings depicting his signature sculpture-like faceless head. In 2017, long-unseen works by Bacon and Mohassess from the permanent collection of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art were showcased in Iran’s capital.
That same year, Mohassess’s 1968 work Requiem Omnibus (Death of Martin Luther King), a macabre figurative painting made in reaction to the death of the civil rights leader, sold for $755,000, setting a record price for the artist. In April 2018, Sotheby’s sold the Picasso-like Minotaur Scares the Good People (1966) for £549,000 ($710,00), surpassing its estimate of £280,000–£350,000 ($362,000–$452,000). His Elmo Antico-Ancient Helmet (1969), which features a similar scheme to the present work, sold at Sotheby’s London in 2019 for £150,000 ($194,000).
In spite of the surge in interest, the appearance of a Mohassess major works at auction are uncommon, primarily because the location of many of his pieces is unknown. The Sotheby’s auction is also unusual in that marquee auctions almost exclusively tend to feature European and American artists. Charles Hossein Zenderoudi is one of the few Iranian modernists whose work has hit the block in an an auction of this.
“It is probably the most important event of my young career, but also in the market for Iranian artists,” Baghestani said. “It’s a big deal in our market.”