Buyers for Arab works hold back

What's down The Middle East art market has not yet recovered from the financial crisis and its aftershocks.

While fund managers and oil executives mingled over cocktails and pastries at the Qibab Art Gallery in Abu Dhabi this week, many of the Iraqi artists responsible for the works on display looked on nervously. But like many artists these days, they were mostly disappointed. Only a handful of paintings and sculptures sold.

Art is a reliable barometer of economic confidence, with prices soaring in boom times and retreating after stock prices do the same. Based on the results from Qibab this week and other recent events, the Middle East market has not yet recovered from the financial crisis and its aftershocks. "People have become more rational with their purchases," said Lamees al Bazirgan, the owner of Qibab. Ms al Bazirgan recorded only three sales, each for between Dh10,000 and Dh15,000, out of the 37 works on display.

Still, almost 200 guests made their way to the tiny gallery, which is tucked away on a side street in the posh Khalidiya neighbourhood, and art insiders say buyers are slowly starting to come back. "The market is getting better," said Tarane Ali Khan of The Third Line gallery. William Lawrie, the head of sales at Christie's auction house in Dubai, said sales prices were not nearly as high as in previous years, but he added that was also an indication that regional buyers were becoming more discerning.

"Buyers are now more selective with what they are bidding for. But that is also a sign of maturity of the market," Mr Lawrie said. Works of art are illiquid investments, worth as much as a single buyer is willing to pay. Last October, a buyer paid US$662,000 at a Christie's auction for a mixed-media piece by Ahmed Moustafa, a record price for a contemporary Arab artist. There was little sign of that sort of exuberance at Qibab this week, although guest Hanaan Alwan Zaki noticed a painting by Salman Abbas that she had seen displayed 10 years ago at another gallery. It has since tripled in price.

"It is an investment that you can see and hang on your wall," Ms Zaki said.