"Art is when you go to a gallery or when you meet an art dealer and you see something that hurts your heart. You want it," says the impassioned Austrian art consultant Elisabeth Peyronnet of the rationale behind her business. Having devoted her life to what she calls "the masters of the 20th century", it is a subject that she is knowledgable about. But what exactly does "art consultant" mean? In this case it means that Elisabeth and her husband, Paul Peyronnet, have spent the past 20 years together travelling across the world from their home in Paris offering clients their changing portfolio of lithographs. "We are a travelling gallery if you like," she says.
The latest stop in the couple's itinerary is Abu Dhabi. They have just arrived armed with a large, bulging portfolio of approximately 80 lithographs which Paul carefully runs through, layering the coffee table in front of him with works by Picasso, Botero, Chagall and Dalí. Some are hand-signed, explains Elisabeth, some are not. A lithograph of Picasso's Jacqueline with Flowers, she says, is priced at Dh85,000; a smaller ink sketching of his costs Dh75,000. The couple buy them mostly from galleries in France.
Lithography, where an artist creates a limited edition of prints from an original piece of artwork typically drawn on limestone, is a relatively democratic aspect of the art market. Art world insiders might be nervous about the market's current wobbles, but the big names of those in the Peyronnet portfolio would normally fetch millions of dollars at auction. Though far from cheap, the lithographs do at least offer more people access to the mysterious world of art collecting.
Both husband and wife shared an early love of art. Paul spent his formative years studying fine art in Marseilles, Elisabeth at university in Vienna. They met when she moved to Paris, Paul having already started off collecting work there and organising small sales. Working together has been trouble-free, she says, because of their "common passion" for the subject. Their shared career takes them to clients and auctions across the world and they both enjoy the travelling aspect.
In the UAE, their client base is mainly expatriates. "British, Americans, Germans and Swiss," Elisabeth says. Their taste, it seems, is varied. "It's very personal," says Elisabeth, refusing to be drawn on specifics, "it depends on the person." But the couple's devotion to their cause knows no bounds. In the early years of their business, a European client tasked them with the job of tracking down the Andy Warhol work of Marilyn Monroe in pink. It was a search that spanned weeks and the breadth of America, from New York to Los Angeles and finally to a private collector in Palm Springs. They persuaded the owner of one such piece to part with it. "I don't remember the exact price that we sold it for," says Elisabeth. "But the price now on the international market would be $150,000-$180,000 (Dh820,000-990,000)."
It is rare that a client calls them up to ask for a specific work. Mostly, the Peyronnets make private appointments with their prospective buyers and service is spread by word of mouth. "It's not a common way to promote art but it works very well because we have direct contact with our clients and we take a lot of time," she says. "We make an appointment; we show the collection; we give background information about the artist and about the art market; we assist with the framing advice. People appreciate it because it's personalised."
Seeking out the lithographs is becoming more of a challenge, though. "Paul always says it's easy to sell once he has a good piece. But art is going out across the world, to Asia, to Japan, to America and the pieces don't come back to France. They stay in private collections, so it's a work that's becoming more and more rare." Another trouble, one might suspect, would be people reining in their spending even on more affordable, collectable art. But Paul is surprisingly upbeat about recession fears. "A crisis is a little necessary to readjust, we cannot go up, up, up," he says gesticulating wildly with his hands.
Both, though, remain optimistic about art growth in the Gulf. "With all these events and art exhibitions, interest is growing and people are more awake and more keen on art," says Elisabeth. "I think the potential here is very high." * Sophia Money Coutts