A large oil painting by the late Iranian artist Bahman Mohassess broke records at a Sotheby’s auction, selling for GBP585,000 (roughly $US755,000), twice the minimum estimate set for the work. It was the highest price ever paid for Mohassess at auction.

The 1968 canvas, “Requiem Omnibus (Death of Martin Luther King),” is a tortured vision of bodies and limbs, painted in thick shades of gray. It’s a tribute to the American civil-rights campaigner Martin Luther King, who was shot and killed that same year.
Mohassess gifted the work directly to the unidentified owner a year or two after he painted it. The sale was one of the highlights of the Sotheby’s 20th-Century Middle Eastern art auction on April 25.

“The demand for Iranian modern art has never been so high,” said Ashkan Baghestani, deputy director of contemporary and modern Arab and Iranian art at Sotheby’s. “Rare works, fresh to the market and of museum quality, still continue to lead our auctions.”

Sotheby’s Deputy Director of
Contemporary and Modern Arab and Iranian art, Ashkan Baghestani

Baghestani said there were several factors behind the success of the Mohassess. To start with, “no one painted like him in the ’50’s and ’60s’ in Iran.” He had a “very avant-garde, surrealist” style. Secondly, Mohassess rarely painted such large-scale canvases – the Sotheby’s painting measures 1 meter by 1.65 meters. Thirdly, the artist’s international reputation has grown since he appeared in museum shows (such as “Unedited History” at the Musee d’Art Moderne in Paris in 2014) and museum collections (the Tate, the British Museum).

Asked to list other Iranian modern and contemporary artists with strong auction markets at the moment, Baghestani named Parviz Tanavoli, the late Sohrab Sepehri, the late Leyly Matine-Daftary, and the late Behjat Sadr.

Mohassess was born in Rasht, northern Iran, in March 1931. After the coup d’etat against Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh, he left Iran for Rome, becoming one of the very first Iranian students to enroll at the Art Academy. There, he became exposed to Cubism, Surrealism and other 20th-century modern art movements. His art soon started to reflect those influences. He was later nicknamed “the Persian Picasso.”

Bahman Mohassess

Mohassess returned to Iran in 1964, and lived and worked there for four years. During the 1960s, Mohassess participated in the Venice, Sao Paulo and Tehran Biennales. He also wrote poetry and essays, translated works of European literature, and staged avant-garde plays in Tehran. At around the same time, he had large-scale works commissioned for public squares in Iran; some of these were destroyed after the 1978-79 Revolution.

From 1968, he settled more or less permanently in Rome, and only made occasional trips back to his homeland. He lived for decades in a Rome hotel, and was very much a reclusive and mysterious figure. He also made a habit of destroying his paintings and sculptures; in 2006, on a trip to Tehran, he destroyed many of the works still remaining in his atelier there.

Mohassess died in Rome in 2010.