An Emerging Market

by Eileen Kinsella

The rapid development of a market for contemporary art in the Persian Gulf area is typical of other regional art booms of recent years. Collectors and expatriates focus on work by artists from their respective countries—Iranian buyers snapping up Iranian art, Lebanese patrons buying Lebanese—fueling higher prices and creating international buzz. “Dubai offers a lot of separate art markets,” says London dealer John Martin, who is director of the three-year-old Art Dubai fair. “There are very strong South Asian and Iranian art markets there,” he says, adding that it’s “increasingly a microcosm” of the broader region.

Ali Bagherzadeh, an Iranian-born art dealer and director of Xerxes Fine Arts in London, says contemporary art in the Middle East can be classified into two general categories: Iranian art, and, on a much larger scale, Arab art. The local collectors “are generally young, as is the general population of the region—professionals like bankers, accountants, and business leaders, as well as institutions,” says Mehreen Rizvi-Khursheed, head of modern and contemporary South Asian and Middle Eastern art at Bonhams. “There are of course certain artists who are extremely sought after at the moment, such as Farhad Moshiri. Iran is the one country that is generating a lot of interest in terms of its artists being collected not only by Iranians, but by other nationalities as well.”

Observers say established collectors from the United States and Europe are buying Middle Eastern art, among them Charles Saatchi, whose Saatchi Gallery in London has the group show “Unveiled: New Art from the Middle East,” on view through May 6. Christie’s began holding sales in Dubai in 2006, and demand has been high for its offerings, which include works by artists from Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt, Pakistan, Syria, and Qatar. Bonhams followed suit, holding its inaugural Dubai sale last March, and Sotheby’s is planning its first series of international art sales in the Qatari capital of Doha next month.

Auction prices for many Middle Eastern artists have skyrocketed. For instance, prices for work by Iranian sculptor Parviz Tanavoli (b. 1937) rose from a high of about $340,000 in late 2007 to a record $2.8 million for a 1975 bronze sculpture, The Wall (Oh, Persepolis), at the Christie’s Dubai sale last April. Prices have also been strong for Mohammed Ehsai (b. 1939), another Iranian, whose calligraphic interpretations of Arabic letters are frequently among top auction lots. The current record is $1.2 million, paid for He Is the Merciful (2007), also sold at the Christie’s sale last April, far outstripping its $100,000–$150,000 estimate.

Sotheby’s has also fared well with Middle Eastern art in London. Its sale of modern and contemporary Iranian and Arab art last October took in £3.2 million ($5.2 million), doubling the £1.5 million total of the previous year’s sale. Bonhams’s first Dubai sale, held last March, realized $13 million, more than double the $5 million low estimate. However, some observers say the rapid run-up in prices is due partly to speculation. Christie’s April sale in Dubai, for example, realized $20 million and was 93 percent sold by value; its October sale took in $8.7 million, at only 65 percent sell-through by value.

While demand for contemporary Western art in this region appears limited, there are signs that it is on the rise. Andy Warhol’s portraits of the former shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, have proven popular in the area, as have his silk screens of the U.S. dollar sign. Among the top lots at the Christie’s Dubai sale last spring was Robert Indiana’s large sculpture LOVE (1966–99), which sold for $1.2 million against a $1 million–$1.5 million estimate. Qatar’s ruling Al-Thani family reportedly bought a $72.8 million Mark Rothko painting and a £9.6 million ($19.2 million) Damien Hirst pill cabinet at sales in 2007.

Michael Jeha, managing director of Christie’s Middle East, also notes that “there are over 50 galleries in Dubai alone, compared to around 5 just three or four years ago.”
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