Christie's announces top lot for its annual Middle Eastern art auction

A mirror mosaic by the late artist Monir Farmanfarmaian is expected to sell for Dh1 million at auction in October

The work of Iranian artist Hadieh Shafie entitled '25750 pages' is included in this year's Christie's 'Middle Eastern Modern & Contemporary Art' auction in October. Courtesy of Christie's 
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Now in its third year, Christie’s Middle Eastern Modern and Contemporary Art annual auction takes place in London on October 23, with more than 90 Middle Eastern artworks from around the world.

Held as part of Islamic Art Week in London, the auction will bring in consignments from France, Italy, Australia and Argentina.

“What we offer is a reaction to what we are offered from collectors,” said Hala Khayat, Christie’s director and head of sale in the Middle East.

“The result of every catalogue is what collectors, in this particular time, have accepted for many different reasons to part with. There are many works we wish to have in the sale, but their owners are not ready yet.”

Khayat said that they are offered “hundreds of works”, from which they pick “only the rarest in the market”.

Monir Farmanfarmaian's 'Untitled (Faravahar Wings, Zarathustra)' is estimated to sell for over Dh1 million. Courtesy Christie's 

The highlight of the auction is a mirror mosaic work by the late Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian, who died in April this year. Her 2008 Untitled (Faravahar Wings, Zarathustra) is inspired by the Faravahar, a symbol of a winged bird from Zoroastrianism. It is comprised of triangle-shaped mirrors compactly arranged in a way that allows for light to bounce in many directions. The signed and dated work is estimated to sell at Dh1 million.

The seller of Untitled (Faravahar Wings, Zarathustra) is an international collector in the UAE who wishes to remain anonymous.

“Our client thinks it is a good time to sell it. We’re grateful that he has trusted us with it this amazing work,” said Khayat.

Untitled (Faravahar Wings, Zarathustra) was acquired directly from the artist's studio in 2008, then later sold at the 2016 Sotheby's Alchemy: Objects of Desire auction for about Dh720,000.

Khayat acknowledges that this increase in value follows a trend in the art world where works increase in value after an artist’s death.

However, Farmanfarmaian – widely referred to by her first name – was already an established artist during her life, with a career that spanned over five decades. In the 1970s, she rubbed shoulders with Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning in the New York art scene. She made her mark by blending contemporary styles with Islamic geometric patterns and Sufi cosmology in her mirror mosaics and reverse-glass paintings.

“She was the only woman artist in her lifetime to get a private museum dedicated to her in Tehran, which is a great cultural initiative in light of the economic circumstances in the country,” said Khayat, referring to The Monir Museum that opened in December 2017. It became the place where her memorial was held by close friends after her death.

Farmanfarmaian's work will also be shown by Christie's before the auction at Frieze London, which takes place from October 3 to 6. This year, the Sharjah Art Foundation will host a major retrospective of the artist in October.

Ismail Shammout’s 'The Way'. Courtesy Christie's 

At more than three metres wide, the work of another Iranian artist, Nasrollah Afjehei, is one of the largest to be included in auction. He was part of Iran's neo-calligraphy movement or Naqqashi Khatt in the 1970s, using painting materials to render his script-based works. The large-scale piece is estimated at Dh269,168 to Dh358,890.

Other anticipated top sellers include Palestinian modernist Ismail Shammout's The Way, expected to bring in Dh224,306 to Dh314,029. Featuring dark tones and heavy lines, the painting shows angry men and women crowded together carrying weapons. It alludes to the tense and tragic events in Palestine from the 1950s and 1960s. Consigned from a private collection, The Way was previously shown at Berlin's National Galerie in the 1970s.

The work of Iranian artist Hadieh Shafie entitled '25750 Pages' is included in this year's Christie's Middle Eastern Modern & Contemporary Art auction in October. Courtesy Christie's 

In the contemporary section, Hadieh Shafie’s colourful scrolls provide a fresh, young addition to the lot. Her near-sculptural pieces are made from hand-rolled strips of paper fashioned into colourful coils and mounted on a base board. Like Farmanfarmaian, Shafie draws influences from elements of traditional Iranian and Islamic art with her use of repeating forms.

Other contemporary Iranian artists are also featured heavily in the list, including Farhad Moshiri, Reza Derakshani and Ali Banisadr.

Last year, Christie's Middle Eastern Modern and Contemporary Art auction made more than Dh17.5m in total sales, while 2017 brought in more than Dh23m.

Khayat said their target, however, is not only total sales. It is also about sell-through rates, which refers to the percentage of artwork that resulted in a transaction. Last year's rates were at 83% by lot, which means nearly all of the works sold.

“The art world is on a different wave. It is not a typical market. It’s a very niche market. We are not like every commodity,” she said.

For some collectors, the value of art goes beyond monetary value, she said. “People collect art for different reasons. They might buy works that emphasise their identity, their gender, their political stand or to preserve a moment in history which tells their story."

Money from auction sales hardly make their way to the artists or artist estates, but rather go to the collectors or sellers – who may have purchased the work as an investment – with the auction house taking a percentage.

The works will be available for viewing starting October 18, and the auction on October 23 will also be open for the public to attend.