Working Wonders: Going, going, gone! Christie’s MD on digging Picassos out of the desert

Meagan Kelly Horsman spends her days surrounded by some of the world’s most memorable artworks, from Pablo Picasso and Tracey Emin to Damien Hirst and Anish Kapoor

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Our Working Wonders of the UAE series takes you to some of the country's most recognisable destinations to uncover the daily duties of the talented employees working there

From Pablo Picasso to Tracey Emin, Meagan Kelly Horsman spends her days dealing with some of the world’s most lucrative art.

The 38 year old from Britain is managing director of Christie's Middle East and has sent everything from modern Middle Eastern paintings to ancient pashmina carpets under the hammer, accumulating millions in sales.

Here, she invites The National for a tour of Christie’s DIFC gallery and talks us through her days at the world’s leading auction house.

How did you come to work at Christie’s?

I’d always been interested in art and after an art history degree at the University of Glasgow, I took my first job in London at Bonhams as an auction office administrator.

It was my job to sit next to the auctioneer and keep on top of all the bids firing in, so I was really thrown in at the deep end.

In 2010 I moved to the Bonhams office in Dubai and I was captivated by Middle Eastern art. Eventually Bonhams closed and I spent some time working at the XVA Galley and Meem Gallery before joining Christie’s in May 2022.

What does your job involve?

People tend to assume it’s all just bashing a hammer and shouting “sold” but there’s a lot more to auctioneering than that.

I specialise in modern and contemporary art from the Arab world, North Africa and Iran, so I spend a lot of my time immersed in curation or collection management.

There are some huge private collections in the region and it’s always very exciting to see something special come together.

I also visit auctions around the world and bid on behalf of our clients, which is very fast-paced and exhilarating. You’re dealing with large amounts of money that belong to someone else, so the pressure is on.

All the auctions in the UAE are online but our clients are from all over the world so my working hours can be quite erratic. It’s not unusual for me to be up at 3am bidding on a rare piece of modern art.

What are some of the most exciting aspects?

Often I’ll arrive at a private home to view one piece of art and something else will blow me away entirely.

There are some works by incredible artists tucked away around the UAE and stumbling across a Damien Hirst or a Pablo Picasso is a huge thrill.

There’s also a lot of big sales to get excited about and sometimes the selling price just blows you away.

Christie's New York sold Andy Warhol's 1964 portrait of Marilyn Monroe in May 2022 for $195 million (Dh716 million), becoming the most expensive piece of American art ever sold, which was incredible.

Although I didn’t work on the sale personally, to be part of something so monumental was amazing.

In September 2022, we also exhibited a pashmina carpet in Dubai before it was sold in London for £5,442,000 ($6,913,500, Dh25.3 million) against a presale estimate of £2.5 million to £3.5 million.

What famous artworks have you come across in the region?

Over the years in the UAE and the region at large I have come across some amazing objects and artworks from vast archives of undiscovered early photography to huge collections of exceptional pearls and ultra-contemporary art.

My favourites include monumental works by Anish Kapoor and Damien Hirst, vibrant neons by Tracey Emin and Mona Hatoum and Arab modernist masterpieces by Jewad Selim and Shakir Hassan Al Said, unseen for decades.

I have also seen a number of legendary Picassos in the region over the years, with some exquisite examples, which would be valued in the millions of dollars.

Works by Pablo Picasso can sell for over Dh367 million and Christie's New York holds the world record for the sale of the Les femmes d'Algier (Version 'O') for $179 million in 2015.

We also discovered some of Jewad Selim's work, The Watermelon Seller, which sold at Christie's London for £668,750.

His work is hard to find – I have seen only three to four examples of his work in private hands over the past few years, as he died so young at age 40.

The exciting aspect of finding one of his works is more the rarity of the object than its monetary value, as you know many collectors will be excited to get their hands on it.

Works by Damien Hirst and Anish Kapoor regularly sell in the millions of dollars globally, and the works I have seen here were no different. They were interesting to me, in particular due to the locations I found them in – from a private desert retreat to a spectacular majlis.

What are the most rewarding parts of your job?

I am lucky enough to be able to say I have been involved in some very successful sales in the course of my career, at auctions as well as galleries.

Rather than monetarily, I think some of my favourite sales are more about placement – as I can go and visit the artworks in a museum, where they hang proudly for thousands of people to see every year.

I also love to visit private collectors and friends’ homes, where over the past 14 years of working in the UAE, I have helped them find some really unique works or helped them with special commissions.

One of my favourite sales this year at Christie’s has to be our London auctions of Marhala (The Dalloul Collection) and Modern and Contemporary Middle Eastern Art, which were held on November 9, and totalled over £5 million with a fantastic sell-through rate.

Updated: December 21, 2023, 3:00 AM