Global crisis takes toll on Iranian art

After record-breaking sales of modern and contemporary works, auction houses find the demand is easing as collectors get cautious.

Iranian Painter Farah Ossouli is painting in her studio in Tehran.02/12/2008 Photo Credit Tara for The National  *** Local Caption ***  KOW_0254.jpg
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TEHRAN // The record-making sales of Iranian art at auctions around the world has slowed as the global financial crisis squeezes spending on luxury items, with the frantic increases seen in the domestic market also expected to ease.

At a recent auction by Bonhams in Dubai, several works by Iranian artists remained unsold, though some pieces, including works by Faramarz Pilaram, were still selling well. Record-breaking sales of modern and contemporary Iranian artwork peaked in May this year when The Wall by the sculptor Parviz Tanavoli fetched US$2.8m (Dh10.3m) at a Christie's auction in Dubai. However, some art collectors and dealers believe despite this earlier success, the global financial crisis will affect the international sales of artwork, including those of Iran.

The crisis has made people more cautious in the way they spend their money, said Ferial Salahshour, an art collector who also owns and runs a gallery in Tehran. "People are worried the world over now and it is only natural that they show less interest in buying artwork in the present circumstances." Ms Salahshour said despite the falling prices, modern and contemporary Iranian artwork deserved the belated attention from the international auction houses.

Syma Sayyah, a collector who also reports on art for Payvand, an Iranian news portal, said: "Prices are bound to go down, not only as a result of economic troubles but also because of the realities of the market. "The great hike in prices has affected my own buying power and I am not buying anything right now." The auctions' previous success, however, has had a downside. It has led to artists raising the prices so much that some domestic buyers are no longer able to afford the works.

Artists also agree that the price hike, caused by the success of the auctions, has to stop at some point. Farah Ossouli, a renowned contemporary painter, said: "Preliminary auction estimates for Iranian artwork increased seven-fold in only one year. "A work estimated to sell for $70,000 last year was valued at $700,000 this year. An annual percentage of increase is acceptable but such a huge difference seems illogical to me."

One of her works that went to auction last month had an estimate of $20,000 but sold for $46,000. Ms Ossouli predicted prices would soon stabilise. "International auction houses like Christie's, Sotheby's and Bonhams will need to make their estimates more rational considering the problems the global economy is facing at the moment," she said. Art critics said most of the high-priced Iranian works sold at international auctions had been purchased, often as an investment, by Iranian collectors living in other countries.

Collectors from other Middle Eastern countries also seem to be very interested in Iranian artwork. "It could be that a great deal of Iranian modern and contemporary artwork, like the works of Mohammad Ehsai and Farhad Moshiri, which sold very well in auctions, consist of painting-calligraphy," Ms Ossouli said. "Moreover, non-Iranian Middle Eastern buyers are sometimes reluctant to buy artwork that depicts figures due to some religious considerations that they have.

"These works are not considered appropriate to use in their private spaces. "This reluctance makes our painting-calligraphy and abstract works to some extent, very appealing to them."