Record sale latest sign of recovery in Dubai art market

After a brief rocky period, confidence in Dubai's Middle Eastern art market is on the rise once again – and trade in the city's high-end auction houses is booming.
Jussi Pylkkanen, the president of Christie's, at the sixth auction series in Dubai.
Jussi Pylkkanen, the president of Christie's, at the sixth auction series in Dubai.

Artists might shrink from the comparison, but art and sport have a good deal in common. In both domains, practitioners meet and compete, strive to set personal bests and break records, while the media pays as much attention to the money they earn as it does to their achievements. Just as Tiger Woods is recognised as the world's highest-paid athlete (earning $90m this year, estimates Sports Illustrated), so Jasper Johns is admired as the creator of the most expensive painting by a living artist (False Start, sold for $80 million in 2006).

The analogy stumbles only a little when a new record is set at auction. For the artist, there is no podium to mount, no trophy to raise, no lap of honour to run - at most, there is a polite round of applause. In the foyer of Christie's salesroom in Dubai last week, however, the Egyptian artist Mahmoud Said enjoyed an additional, albeit posthumous, distinction: the hasty installation of a velvet-roped barrier, complete with burly bouncer, to discourage overly close inspection of what had just become the most expensive painting by an Arab or Iranian artist ever sold at auction.

In the ballroom of the Jumeirah Emirates Towers Hotel, amid unusually enthusiastic applause from the congregation of collectors, dealers, gallery owners and Savile Row-attired Christie's types, one could also feel an overwhelming sense of relief.

The sale for more than $2.54 million of Said's 1929 painting The Whirling Dervishes - spinning wildly past its pre-sale estimate of $300,000 to $400,000 - appeared to confirm that the fledging Dubai art market, blown from its perch by the financial storms of 2008 and 2009, had picked itself up again.

"Once it made $2 million, there was a sense of ... well, shock," said Jussi Pylkkänen, president of Christie's Middle East and Europe, the man who brought the hammer down on the sale. "When it reached $2.5m it lifted the room. We knew it would make a multiple of its estimate; we didn't imagine it would be an eight-times multiple."

After the sale, a delighted Pylkkänen took an early-morning flight back to London. "I was still flying when I landed," he said.

It would be fair to say there had been some pre-match nerves in the Christie's camp. Among the lots for this auction were 30 works from the collection of the Saudi Arabian collector and patron Dr Mohammed Said Farsi - widely regarded as the finest private collection of modern Egyptian art - to which The Whirling Dervishes belonged. "The question we were asking ourselves beforehand," said Pylkkänen, "was what would the appetite be to compete for these expensive works of art?"

The answer was "ravenous". All 30 of the Farsi pieces sold, 27 of them above estimate. Overall Christie's ninth Dubai auction of modern and contemporary art from the region pulled in more than $14 million. This was a little less than the $15.1m achieved in April but it proved that that figure had not been a fluke. As Christie's was quick to point out, taken together the two sales added up to $29 million - a 120 per cent improvement over 2009.

The money, it seems, is back.

* * *

In 2006 Christie's decided to stage two sales a year of international modern and contemporary art in Dubai - predominantly Arab, Iranian, Indian and Pakistani artists, though with a sprinkling of western works. It seemed like a masterstroke, bringing together the cachet and class of a company founded in 1766 with the flash and cash of an arriviste city hungry for culture.

It also threw a spotlight on a Middle Eastern artist who was about to find himself promoted to the Premiership of the art world.

The first sale, in May 2006, raised a highly creditable $8.5 million, including the $912,000 paid for the evening's top lot, the 1979 painting Numbers by the Indian artist Rameshwar Broota. The sale also took what would soon seem like a relatively modest $48,000 for Iran Map 1, a 2000 painting by Iran's Farhad Moshiri. The next auction, in February the following year, made $9.4 million, but both hauls were overshadowed by the $15.2m raised by Christie's autumn 2007 sale, which also set two global records. The token incongruous western work in the top 10 that night was Damien Hirst's Atorvastatina, which sold near the bottom of its estimate to a European buyer. Another of his pieces failed to sell at all. The stars of the show were the home players, and man of the match was the Egyptian artist Ahmed Moustafa, whose 1995 painting Qur'anic Polyptych of Nine Panels went to a private Middle Eastern buyer for $657,000. It was the highest price in a Dubai art auction to date and also a world record for a work by an Arab or Iranian artist.

Right on its heels was the $601,000 bid for Moshiri's 2007 canvas One World - 10 times its estimate and a new auction high for an Iranian. Moustafa's world record wouldn't last long; Moshiri was about to become the star attraction.

Within six months, Bonhams had also moved into Dubai, with results that initially rivalled those of Christie's. The auction house (founded in 1793, Christie's junior by 27 years) set up on the opposite side of the Sheikh Zayed Road, in the beachside Royal Mirage Hotel. Its first sale, in March 2008, not only raised $13m and set 33 records but also raised the profile of Middle Eastern art on the world stage. The $1,048,000 paid for Moshiri's 2007 canvas Eshgh (Love) was the first time a work by a Middle Eastern artist had sold at auction for more than $1m.

But if glittering Dubai and Moshiri's Swarovski crystal-encrusted art seemed made for each other, the honeymoon was drawing to a close - though not before one final, extravagant spending spree.

Barely a month later Christie's responded to Bonhams with an enormous sale. That April's $20 million haul included four works that sold for more than $1m. The Wall - Oh Persepolis, a 1975 bronze sculpture by the Iranian artist Parviz Tanavoli, sold for $2.8 million, a new record price for an Arab or Iranian artist.

"Dubai has become an established international marketplace," said Pylkkänen after the auction. Christie's next Dubai sale, in October 2008, would be "a landmark auction".

So it was, though not in the sense it might have hoped. A month before the sale, Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy. Checked by changing economic circumstances, the auction raised only $8.7m, saw only 70 per cent of lots sold and threatened no world records.

A month later, Bonhams was hit even harder.

In the run-up to its November 2008 auction in Dubai, much of the excitement focussed on its intended star, Mountain, a huge aluminium sculpture by the Turner Prize-winning Anish Kapoor. It was expected to fetch between $1.8 and $2.6m.

"For Bonhams to offer a museum-quality piece at our second Middle East auction is proof positive of the importance of the UAE as an emerging global cultural hub," enthused Matthew Girling, the CEO of Bonhams Europe and the Middle East. "We are firm believers that this region has a lot to contribute to the forward momentum of the global arts scene, and we are only just now witnessing its emerging importance."

In the event, Mountain was a no-show, quietly withdrawn. A year earlier, Bonhams' Dubai debut had raised $13m. Now its second sale of modern and contemporary Middle Eastern and South Asian art collected just $2.3m.

Worse was to come. The following year both houses hit lows in Dubai. Christie's put on a brave face, declaring in April 2009 that the Middle Eastern art market had been "re-energised by confident bidding from regional clients". Yet there was little energy in the 23 per cent of lots that failed to sell and the mere $4.76m spent on those that had. Christie's would be relieved not to have suffered as badly as Bonhams, which in October managed only $1.8m, failing to sell 30 per cent of lots.

"I am very encouraged by the turn-out at the sale which indicated a return in confidence in the art market," Girling bravely insisted. If ever there was a time to throw in the gavel, it was now.

Yet the houses held their nerve. Today Girling admits that Bonhams considered pulling out of Dubai at this point.

"We decided to stay because the reasons we selected it in the first place hadn't gone away," he said.

If the crash had a dramatic impact on art sales in Dubai, then the brief boom had been equally out of proportion. "What happened at the beginning was not reflective of how the art market normally behaves," Girling explained. "In our first sale in Dubai everything bar two lots sold, and everything was making six to 10 times its estimate. You can still pinch me to remind me it actually happened. It was extraordinary, because you go into a new market with careful, modest, prudent expectations, and those were all completely blown apart."

It wasn't just Dubai, he explained. "You have to remember, it was at a time when the contemporary art market - rather like Dubai's housing scene - was extremely speculative, and people were saying, 'I bought this picture and put it back to auction six months later and made a big profit', on this artist nobody had previously heard of. People looked over to the Middle East and saw there was a lot of interest in Middle Eastern art and that the price points generally were quite low." Then again, "Dubai was a funny place at that time".

In 2009, few people were laughing. Only now is it clear that the recovery was just around the corner.

In October 27, 2009, Christie's rallied, pulling in $6.7m. In April this year it did twice as well, with a spring sale that made $15.1m - including the $2.43m paid for Mahmoud Said's 1934 oil painting Les Chadoufs, 10 times above estimate and then a new record at auction for a painting by any Arab or Iranian artist, modern or contemporary.

Last month, Bonhams perked up as well, though it was able to shift only 64 per cent of lots to raise $2.73m. Nevertheless, confidence was back. Immediately after the October 11 auction the company announced it was appointing a Dubai-based Middle East director. The new role, said Girling, "recognises the strength of the market and that we need to bolster our team locally. We think the auction market is going to continue to grow here."

So does Pylkkänen. Dubai, he told me, has become a "natural hub", in the same way as Hong Kong became the inevitable place for Christie's Asian operations.

He added that the arrival of the auction houses had helped to transform the local art landscape. "The number of galleries in Dubai has risen from about five when we first began our work in the region to about 60," he said. More importantly, it opened a door onto the international scene for artists from the region.

"When we began our Middle Eastern sales there was no platform for contemporary Middle Eastern artists," he said. "Suddenly, they were being shown on an international platform and quickly became accepted as major artists who belonged in any contemporary collection globally."

There was now "a group of about 15 artists who command what I would say are international contemporary prices", Pylkkänen told me. Moshiri, he said, was "a very good example of that. When Farhad first sold work with us he was totally unknown and in 2006 his Iran Map 1 sold for just $48,000. Now we have already seen prices for his work touching $1m and his paintings sold in the international evening sales in London, alongside Koons, Bacon and Freud."

To be fair, Moshiri was hardly "totally unknown". He is represented in the UAE and the wider region by Dubai's The Third Line gallery, which has been nurturing a collector base since 2005. By the time Christie's came to town, said the gallery's co-founder, Sunny Rahbar, Moshiri was "already a star". Even so, he shone a lot brighter after being plugged into the international circuit.

Bonhams, not unreasonably, also claims a slice of the credit for Moshiri's elevation; it was, suggests Girling, Bonhams' sale of his work Love for $1m in 2008 that propelled him into the superstar category, "as witnessed by the fact that all three sales this season have pieces by him".

Moshiri and "one or two others", he said - notably Parviz Tanavoli, whose sculpture Poet and the Bird fetched $480,000 at the same sale - "have benefited enormously from the sharp light that the auction world throws. What happens in a gallery is not public; if a Moshiri sells for $1m through a gallery, the world doesn't hear about it".

So far, Moshiri and Tanavoli are exceptions. International recognition and record sales are hard to come by for contemporary artists from the region. There are doubts, moreover, that it helps their cause to herd miscellaneous talents together for auctions. Yet Pylkkänen insists that such group presentations are "an appropriate step" in the development of emerging artists. "What we are putting into the Dubai sales is a curated cross-section of work from 20 different countries and I think it contextualises it. With one visit, somebody looking at Middle Eastern art for the first time can understand what the whole community is working on." All the same, the question of how best to present the region's art remains open.

Sotheby's, Britain's other great auction house (founded in 1744) is noticeable in Dubai by its absence. It, too, has recognised the potential of the Middle East art market, but has adopted a different strategy to its rivals. Since 2007 it has staged an annual sale of modern and contemporary Arab and Iranian art in London, offering a different perspective on the growing market and fuelling debate about the best way to nurture it.

Sotheby's first sale, in October 2007, raised a modest $3m - a fifth of Christie's total in Dubai that same month. The following year takings rose to $5.2m but in 2009, post-Lehman, Sotheby's absorbed the Arab and Iranian art into its general contemporary sale, "in response", explained Dalya Islam, the firm's deputy director for the Middle East and India, "to market conditions and the needs of our clients at that time".

But what about the needs of Middle Eastern artists? The first consequence was that there was far less room for them in Sotheby's global shop window. Just 30 or so artists, from countries including Iran, Syria, Algeria, Iraq and Lebanon, made it into the auction. They accounted for just $1.8m of the $20.7m total sale and, although the majority of their pieces sold at a premium, only one of the "Middle Easterners" stood out - Moshiri again, whose two-part painting Cowboy and Indian (sold, perhaps significantly, to a European buyer), commanded just over $646,000. It entered the sale's top eight, just ahead of a Warhol and behind a Hirst.

Sotheby's pragmatic experiment in what might be called cultural integration triggered a debate about how best to package artists from the Middle East for international consumption. Hamrooz Aram, an Iranian artist who had a piece in the clumsily titled Contemporary Art Including Arab & Iranian Art auction (it failed to sell), wrote a stinging article for Art Review,  attacking what he called "the misleading and irresponsible category of 'Arab and Iranian art'".

The clumping together of artists as Arabs and Iranians, fumed Aram, falsely created "a group of artists and artworks that really have little to do with one another", implying "that all the work has to offer its audience is the ethnicity or nationality of its author".

This "Neo-Orientalism" was a symptom of the market's "capricious casting about for a readily consumable otherness".

Aram, said Dalya Islam, "is completely entitled to his opinion". Yet from her perspective, Sotheby's provided "a gateway for artists from the region to be viewed and appreciated by the international crowd that comes through our doors" and let them move into the "mainstream contemporary". Moreover, there was genuine commonality linking the work.

"In my personal view, the theme that links Arab and Iranian artists are the issues of identity, modernity and the impact of globalisation on the region," she said.

Moshiri, she added, often deals "with the disintegration of cultural values in Iran. He hides his message behind what appears to be a very superficial, brightly coloured façade when what he is talking about is the encroachment of western culture on local culture, and he starts a dialogue as to whether that is a good thing or not, what are we borrowing and what should we be rejecting."

This is a dilemma with which more artists from the Middle East may soon be faced. After Christie's April sale, the US-based ARTnews observed that "contemporary art from the Islamic Middle East is being positioned as the art market's newest and hottest trend" - a trend fuelled "in large part by art developments in the Emirates - the Louvre and Guggenheim projects in Abu Dhabi, art fairs there and in Dubai, the Sharjah Biennial, and the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar."

* * *

Such "positioning" chimes with Aram's concerns about "the auction house and the few collectors and dealers intent on capitalising on exotic names in an attempt to create the next boom market".

For the UK's The Art Newspaper, how the trend is handled is vitally important to the art of the region. Still "a fragile plant", wrote Anna Somers Cocks, it could "easily be trained in one direction or another by outsiders", such as influential institutions and western money, "that give validation to contemporary art anywhere in the world". If this happened, "we will be artistically the poorer... what no one needs is western-style fine art with some orientalist flourishes".

Of course, such reservations are a luxury afforded by success. Like it or not, the Dubai auctions are back and continuing to forge an international platform for Middle Eastern art. It is, after all, here and not in London that all the records have been set.

Last week's sale, said Pylkkänen, was "one of the most exciting I have had the opportunity to hold… and a straightforward indication of the remarkable strength of this marketplace, which has gone from local to international in just three and a half years". The auction houses have helped to put Middle Eastern artists on the world stage. It remains to be seen how many will flourish there.


Jonathan Gornall is a features writer at The National.

Published: November 4, 2010 04:00 AM


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