A Painting Verified on 'Fake or Fortune?' Heads to Auction

The BBC show revealed that this Orientalist painting is worth exponentially more than was previously believed.

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904), At Prayer, 1858, oil on canvas, signed and dated, 34.5 x 25, framed. Image © Sotheby's (detail)
Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904), At Prayer, 1858, oil on canvas, signed and dated, 34.5 x 25, framed. Image © Sotheby's (detail)

In 19th century Europe, the Industrial Revolution ignited such rapid advancements in science and industry that many artists sought an escape. The Orient, spanning the Middle East and North Africa, beckoned with its seemingly exotic way of life, from fragrant bazaars to sun swept desert oases, which many European artists captured on canvas.

One of the leading exponents of this Orientalist movement was the French painter and sculptor Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904), who discovered this subject for himself on trips to Egypt and Turkey in the 1850s. At Prayer, an early painting of this genre by Gérôme from 1858, is one of the highlights of the online auction “The Orientalist Sale” currently taking place at Sotheby's through October 26.

Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904), At Prayer, 1858, oil on canvas, signed and dated, 34.5 x 25, framed. Image © Sotheby's
Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904), At Prayer, 1858, oil on canvas, signed and dated, 34.5 x 25, framed. Image © Sotheby's

To attentive viewers of the BBC show Fake or Fortune?, which determines the true value of viewers' artworks, Gérôme's painting should look familiar. At Prayer was presented on the show this summer as a work by an artist from Jean-Léon Gérôme's circle. Gérôme expert Emily Weeks, however, identified the painting as a work by Gérôme himself. 

Related: The Art of Plein Air Painting

In the course of further research, Weeks also spoke on the show with Claude Piening, an expert in Orientalist art and head of the 19th century painting department at Sotheby's. At Prayer is now being auctioned by Sotheby's, where the current auction record for a painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme was set in 2019 for $3.5 million.

In 2019, Sotheby's set the current auction record for a painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme ($3.5 million) with the painting "Riders Crossing the Desert". Image © Sotheby's
In 2019, Sotheby's set the current auction record for a painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme ($3.5 million) with the painting "Riders Crossing the Desert". Image © Sotheby's

“I love the immediacy of this painting, executed as it was not long after Gérôme’s first trip to Egypt in 1856 and his impressions of his travels were still fresh in his mind – the viewer truly feels transported to another place and culture," says Piening in a press release about At Prayer. "It is a small work, but has tremendous impact – seeing the figure from the front really conveys the deep communion between the worshipper and God. That this work has been rightfully re-instated into Gérôme’s oeuvre is testament to its exceptional quality.”

Related: Eugène Delacroix: 5 Facts to Know

The auction estimate is £80,000-120,000 ($110,000-165,000). A large difference from what it was purchased for: the consignor of the painting, Los Angeles-based Jon Swihart, bought it at auction in New York in 1999 for only $6,325.

Other artists featured in this sale include Frederick Arthur Bridgman, Carl Werner, Edwin Lord Weeks and Adolf von Meckel. Jean-Léon Gérôme is represented with two other paintings besides At Prayer.

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