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Inside the world of high-end Middle Eastern art sales

Sales of Middle Eastern art at Christie's Dubai are setting records for artists, highlighting the vibrant scene for modern and contemporary Arab, Iranian and Turkish art.
"The Wall" sculpture by Iranian Parviz Tanavoli is exhibited in Dubai, on April 27, 2008, prior to being auctioned at Christies Middle East next week. The estimated price of the sculpture painting is between $400,000-$600,000 (1,500,000-2,200,000UAE Dirhams). Christie's organisers said that the spring sales is set to offer more than $30,000,000 worth of art, jewellery and watches to Middle East market.   AFP PHOTO/MARWAN NAAMANI (Photo credit should read MARWAN NAAMANI/AFP/Getty Images)

In the Middle East and abroad, contemporary Arab art has become a permanent fixture in galleries, private collectors’ homes and auction houses. No longer part of the shifting ephemera in the art world, Middle Eastern artists are consistently fetching high prices, though still only fair on the international market. Nowhere is this growth more notable than at the global auction house Christie’s in Dubai, with biannual cumulative sales in the league of $20 million for modern and contemporary Arab, Iranian and Turkish art.

The auction house heavyweight has set a pattern of continually breaking artist records, blazing a trail for emerging talent. Since its inception in 2005, Christie’s Dubai has sold more than $150 million in contemporary Middle Eastern art, bolstered by international participation in the sales. With this surge, Dubai has been christened the global center for the sale of Middle Eastern art.

In particular, the resilient creative pulses in countries such as Lebanon, Iran and Egypt have proven inexhaustible. Artistic infrastructure in the form of galleries, museums and art fairs has taken over these cultural landscapes. The awakened interest in Middle Eastern art has also been robustly supported by publications such as Canvas and Contemporary Practices, offering comprehensive coverage of art and culture in the Arab world.

With artists such as Mahmoud Said and Shafic Abboud now commanding soaring prices at auction, it seems that this trend might buoy the Arab art market for years to come. At a Christie’s Dubai sale in October, 19 new artist records were set. These included works by “Persian Picasso” Bahman Mohassess, the Egyptian Hamed Ewais, Palestinian Samia Halaby and Lebanon's Abboud. Regional family collections, artists’ estates and private collectors are shrewdly coming together and delivering prized pieces at auction lots. The market is ripe for these gestures, and the calculations have proven fruitful.

Michael Jeha, managing director for Christie’s Dubai, spoke with Al-Monitor about his company's growing business.

The text of the interview follows:

Al-Monitor:  In what ways have you witnessed Dubai’s transformation into a burgeoning art hub?

Jeha:  In 2005, when we opened our office here, there were not more than five galleries operating in Dubai. Today there are over 60 galleries, museums have been built in the region, and the art fairs continue to flourish. Combined with the auctions and the inspirational works produced by the artists from the region, there is a real sense that what has been established is sustainable and that we are all contributing to an environment where we can all benefit.

Al-Monitor:  The recent March sale of Middle East modern and contemporary art saw a 65% increase in sales from the previous year. Which factors contributed to this upsurge?

Jeha:  We were fortunate to have a number of significant collections and works consigned from artist’s estates. … This, combined with the increasingly international interest in the category, added to the success of the auctions.

Al-Monitor:  Shafic Abboud reached his world record at auction at the impressive Oct. 21 sale this year. What other Arab modernist and contemporary artists are faring well at the sales?

Jeha:  I would argue that it is all about the quality of the work. We always ensure that we have the best works available included in our sales and, whilst the modern masters continue to attract the attention of the most serious collectors, they are well informed and will only bid competitively if the work is of the best quality and attractively estimated, both of which are criteria we always attach to the lots in our auctions.

Al-Monitor:  There has been a sudden increase in the number of buyers from the MENA [Middle East and North Africa] region: Can you comment on this trend?

Jeha:  Actually, we have seen a gradual increase, nothing dramatic as you suggest, and if we have noticed a jump, then this has come from those who have shown interest in our online sales. We expected there would be a mixture of existing Christie’s clients and those new to us, and this was exactly what happened. This formula has been used successfully in our other sale centers, attracting 39% of all new buyers to Christie’s in 2012. At each of our regular sales in the Middle East, we have seen the Christie’s LIVE platform embraced by new buyers, with 740 clients from over 40 countries registering to use Christie’s LIVE.

The other reassuring trend is the international interest in Middle Eastern art today. When we started to hold sales in Dubai, most of our clients came from the neighboring region. Today we can say that over 40% of the lots are bought by international clients. In our sales, we generally have registrants from 25 different countries, which is in line with important Christie’s sales taking place around the globe.

Al-Monitor:  Why did the group of private collectors and artists’ estates decide to come forth with their works at the recent successful sale in October and not at another time?

Jeha:  An esteemed group of private collectors and artists’ estates entrusted us with the sale of their works last season. They have all followed this market closely since we held our first sale here in 2006 and decided that now was the right time to offer them for sale at auction. Demand was high for all the works that were offered, and the bidding came from international and regional collectors. They understood that Dubai is now considered to be the global center for the sale of Middle Eastern art and that our sales in this category attract an international group of buyers. Fortunately, their trust in us was well rewarded at the auction.

Al-Monitor:  Overall, is there a gap between international and regional interest in the pieces presented at auction in Dubai? Are bids coming in more from international or regional collectors?

Jeha:  Whenever I travel to see the international art fairs in Miami, Europe or at the recent Venice Biennale, each time I go, more and more Middle Eastern artists and galleries are represented. Increasingly the leading contemporary artists from the region are internationally recognized and not categorized by their country of origin – a great tribute to the quality of the works being produced and the commitment of the artist’s themselves.

Al-Monitor:  What is your personal highlight in the sales from the past few years?

Jeha:  In April 2011, we sold a group of six by works by Edge of Arabia, the internationally recognized, pioneering art project that has shed new light on contemporary art and the culture of Saudi Arabia. The sale was a fundraiser to enable the expansion of their education program and art workshops in Saudi Arabian schools and universities. Included was Abdulnasser Gharem’s "The Message / Messenger," a three-meter-wide wood and copper model of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. It sold for $842,500, a new auction record for the artist, but putting it together for the exhibition in the Emirates Towers provided quite a challenge for our fine art installation team! The group of works was expected to raise around $150,000, but the final combined selling price was $1 million.

Al-Monitor:  How do you feel Christie’s Dubai's recent successes fit in to Christie’s overall efforts worldwide?

Jeha:  I suppose the most significant change has to be the way our new and existing clients have embraced buying online, both in our real-time auctions by bidding across the internet and in our first internet-only auction. This success is mirrored across Christie’s as more clients show that they are happy to engage with us and are increasingly comfortable to use this format as a way to buy art. The introduction of online sales has shown that we have to provide a range of platforms for our clients. People are as comfortable transacting with us online as in the saleroom or over the phone.