Brian MacDermot, who has died aged 82, was a London stockbroker-turned-picture dealer who pioneered the market for Orientalist paintings, bringing the work of such 19th-Century artists as Ludwig Deutsch, Jean-Leon Gerome and Rudolf Ernst to a new generation of passionate collectors.
In the late 1970s MacDermot left a successful career in the City to open his own viewing rooms nestled into a quiet pocket of Belgravia's Arab community. Over the course o f three decades his Mathaf Gallery became the key destination for admirers of the genre.
MacDermot blended charm with an academic understanding of the Middle East and Africa. From the souk to the Sahara, the Bedouins to the Bosporus, the exotic material exhibited on his walls was of deep personal interest. His curiosity grew out of his many adventures in the region: he reported from Rhodesia for The Irish Times, worked with Dr Albert Schweitzer in French Equatorial Africa and, most significantly, lived for a period with the Nuer tribe of southern Sudan.
Brian Hugh MacDermot was born in Paris on December 2, 1930, into a family part-descended from the Irish Kings of Moylurg. He insisted his forename was pronounced "Bree-an". His father, Frank MacDermot, was appointed to the reformed Seanad by Eamon de Valera in 1938 where he was an outspoken critic of Irish neutrality in the Second World War. His mother, Elaine Orr, was a glamorous American divorcee who had previously been married to the poet e e cummings.
MacDermot was educated at St Pauls in the United States, Downside and New College, Oxford, where he read history. He was introduced to the Middle East and North Africa during his time as an officer in the Irish Guards. On leaving the army he worked first at the stockbroker firm Cazenove before becoming a partner at Panmure Gordan (1964-76), whose history he would author. With his Aston Martin and Knightsbridge residence, he embraced City life with zeal; Cosmopolitan judged him one of England's most eligible bachelors, listing his "known hang-outs" as St Moritz, Raffles and Ethiopia.
During the Sixties and Seventies his metropolitan profession and African interests balanced out in an oddly harmonious manner. His briefcase was made from the skin of a crocodile he had shot on safari (it was cured and worked up at Asprey's). And when one of his frequent trips to Africa caused him to miss a Rothschild deal, he simply dispatched a telegram: "Unavoidably delayed in Kalahari Desert. Hope not too inconvenient for takeover bid. Will return soon-est". In 1965 he travelled to Ethiopia's Danakil territory (where he filmed footage for Wilfred Thesiger) and in 1972 returned to study the Nuer pastoralists of the Nile Valley, whose lands stretch into Sudan. In his memoir The Cult of the Sacred Spear, he explained that "it was possible to become almost totally accepted by a primitive people".
The warriors renamed him "Rial Nyang" after the colour of an ox sacrificed in his honour, and during the country's subsequent civil war he was moved to found the Southern Sudan Association to draw attention to their plight.
MacDermot opened the Mathaf Gallery in 1975, and as his third career took off his bachelor days came to an end. In 1985, at the age of 54, he married Georgina ("Gina") Gallwey, the daughter of one of his old army colleagues. As the Cosmopolitan piece had predicted: "This is one man who really plays for keeps: believing that marriage is a lifetime contract." It was just that. They worked together happily, with Gina dealing in contemporary Arab works .
Opening a gallery with an Orientalist focus challenged the prevailing sociopolitical opinion of the time. Edward Said's seminal 1978 book Orientalism postulated that depictions of the East by Western painters and writers had a Eurocentric, colonialist subtext. "Brian proved that this was not how many from the Arab world saw it," noted Claude Piening, Sotheby's head of Orientalist art. "Through his sales of paintings to the Middle East, he showed that there was a genuine appreciation for these views which, for many buyers, formed, and still form, a valuable visual record of their countries in an age before photography. He helped build cultural bridges between West and East."
MacDermot oversaw a significant change in the market. It was through the Mathaf that the Najd Collection, arguably the world's greatest group of Orientalist paintings, was built for a Middle Eastern client.
"I feel that a lot of political nonsense has been uttered about Orientalism," he stated. "At the end of the day, these were artists working within the social and political conditions of their time and there is little, if any, point in judging them according to current political correctness."
As the value of Orientalist works rocketed so did the importance of authentication. When a lady walked in with a canvas, dubiously attributed to Deutsch, she was swiftly shown the door.
MacDermot believed that there were, however, plenty of gems still to be discovered, masterpieces the value of which he had had the rare foresight to imagine.
"In the mid-1970s you could pick up a Gerome for $15,000," he pointed out late in life. "You'd now be looking at a million at least for a good example."
Brian MacDermot was master of the Worshipful Company of Bowyers (1984-86), vice-president of the Royal Anthropological Institute and a council member of the Royal Geographical Society. He is survived by his wife, son and daughter. He died on September 12.