Fine art in Middle East unaffected by regional turmoil

Dubai is to host region's largest sale of contemporary works on Tuesday.

Workers finish setting up the modern and contemporary Arab, Iranian and Turkish Art Auction at Christie's at Jumeirah Emirates Towers in Dubai. The event takes place on Tuesday. Sarah Dea / The National
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Amid rising geopolitical tensions in the Middle East, art market experts say that demand is unlikely to soften for the asset class ahead of the region’s largest sale of contemporary works this week.

Equities in the region have experienced volatility in line with world markets in recent days, hit by concern for the global economic outlook, falling oil prices and geopolitics.

“Some gains have been made on this dip already. No market is immune to its environment and we will be keeping a watchful eye,” said Michael Jeha, the managing director of Christie’s. Its sale of modern and contemporary Arab, Iranian and Turkish Art takes place on Tuesday in Dubai.

“We remain confident in the quality of the works included in the sales, with the value resting in works from private collections which are also fresh to the market, a combination which is always in demand. Our collectors are very fairly balanced between international and Middle East-based clients and we are sure that the sale will perform just as well, despite this reaction from the markets here in the region,” he said.

In its 2014 art and finance report last month Deloitte said almost half of collectors expect the Middle East art market to be flat next year, with 41 per cent expecting a drop.

“Geopolitical uncertainty in the region could weigh on the Middle Eastern art market outlook in the next 12 months. However, expansion in art and museum infrastructure, together with rapid growth in UHNWIs [ultra-high net worth individuals] and their significant allocation of wealth to treasure assets, indicates that this region is likely to play an important part in the global and regional art and collectibles markets in the future,” Deloitte said.

Two of the art world’s most famous names – the Louvre and the Guggenheim – are scheduled to open branches in Abu Dhabi over the next two years. This has stimulated the local appetite for art to such an extent that N2N gallery, based in the Emirates Palace hotel, will be opening a second gallery in Nation Tower next month.

“We sell about eight pieces a month with an average ticket price of about Dh25,000,” said Elina Virtanen, operations manager for N2N Gallery.

Salwa Zeidan, the owner of Abu Dhabi’s Salwa Zeidan Gallery, expects buyers to maintain their current levels of activity.

“Crisis makes people shift into art,” she said. “You would think no one would buy [but] we reopened the gallery in 2009 at the height of the global crisis and the UAE art market didn’t show any effects. Now when you look at Syria and Lebanon, although there are very hard times, the people are spending on art. I just came from [the] Beirut Art [show] and I was shocked at the amount of interest and the amount of business.”

Globally, the art market, rose 52 per cent from its lowest point in 2009 to reach a total of US$60 billion last year, according to Deloitte.

The Auction Rooms online Middle Eastern Contemporary Art sale this month mostly received bids from buyers in the Arab world.

“Arab people are getting excited about art from their part of the world and we’re finding that it’s not just for investment purposes, but because they love the work and want to put it on their walls,” said Janet Rady, the curator of the auction and a specialist in contemporary art from the Middle East. “It’s for the right reasons and that’s really pleasing.”

Street Art Gallery opened this June in Dubai and has already surpassed its business plan for the year.

“We sell between 20 and 40 pieces a month and are seeing a true reflection of Dubai’s residents as our clientele,” said Stephane Valici, the curator and founder of Street Art Dubai. “We focus on affordable art so between $5,000 and $10,000 is our normal ticket. We don’t get many locals in here but a local was responsible for our highest sale of €25,000 [Dh117,172]. We have seen the customer base growing as we invite artists to workshops here, our first had about 150 people and the last had easily 350 people here. There is a real passion for street art, it seems.”

Christie’s pre-sale estimate is in the region of US$6 million to $8m – it sold $8.5m at its auction a year earlier. At its March sale more than $10m worth of art was sold with a work by Abdul Hadi El Gazzar going for above $1m, setting a record for the Egyptian artist.

“International institutions are starting to buy Middle Eastern art so the appetite has been increasing,” said Mr Jeha. “The domestic market is driven by private individuals, but an increasing amount of global institution are buying into the Middle Eastern market. There are a lot of very strong artists from the region which drives interest and enthusiasm and awareness grows the more people see art, and more fairs happen and we see more returns from our auctions.”

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