One man's epic quest to recover a stolen painting by 'Iraq's Picasso'.

AuthorDitmars, Hadani
PositionFaeq Hassan's "Untitled"

Faeq Hassan's Untitled (Salah Al-Din, presumably Battle of Hattin), was withdrawn from sale at Christie's Dubai last month, where it carried an estimate of $400,000-$500,000

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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12th century conquest of Jerusalem from the Crusaders, was due to be auctioned at Christie's Dubai last month, but was withdrawn after he sent a letter to the auction house.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 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."

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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...

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