x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Art auctions in Dubai: the world knows what it likes

Results this week at a series of art auctions in Dubai, spurred by Christie's scheduling of a two-part event, have shown great international interest in Arab and Iranian art.

Title  Pecheurs a Rosette Year  1941 Artist  Mahmoud Said, Egyptian, 1897-1964 Estimate $400,000-$600,000 Sold For  $818,500 Auctioneer  Christie’s
Title Pecheurs a Rosette Year 1941 Artist Mahmoud Said, Egyptian, 1897-1964 Estimate $400,000-$600,000 Sold For $818,500 Auctioneer Christie’s

Results this week at a series of art auctions in Dubai, spurred by Christie's scheduling of a two-part event, have shown great international interest in Arab and Iranian art, and an extremely promising future for the local and regional scene.

Every seat is taken at Ayyam Gallery in Dubai for The Young Collector's Auction.

A buzz of conversation ripples through as the young buyers, some dabbling in the auction scene for the first time, wait for the event to begin.

The dress code is relaxed and the atmosphere equally so, because despite featuring some of the region's most influential artists, prices begin at a level considered more affordable by the art world.

Many of the estimates are under US$10,000 (Dh36,730), with most under $5,000 - deliberately so, because the gallery wants to attract new collectors into the local art market.

But the laid-back atmosphere is deceiving. While some have come to enjoy the spectacle and get close to some of the region's most inspiring Arab and Iranian artworks, many more have come to bid.

The $433,560 amassed on only 66 lots is testament to the competitive action that played out over Monday evening.

The standout piece of the night was the Syrian artist Mohannad Orabi's painting It's No Longer About Me, which sold for $33,600 from an estimate of between $7,000 and $9,000.

"We had someone bidding by phone against somebody in the room and everyone was wondering how high it would go," says Hisham Samawi, managing partner of Ayyam Gallery and the auctioneer for the evening.

"It's good to see people value art that much. These moments don't happen all the time. It's very rare."

Exciting moments in the gallery have been the theme of the week, with the Ayyam event just one of several high-profile auctions.

On the same night, Opera Gallery, part of a network of galleries with bases from Seoul to Florida, also celebrated an invigorating night at its first Dubai sale.

Almost 150 wildly diverse works went under the hammer, including works by Salvador Dali, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Claude Monet, with the total coming to an impressive Dh27 million.

The top lot, Odalisque couchee, by the Dutch artist Kees Van Dongen, went for Dh9.6m.

But it is the big player, Christie's Middle East, that has really driven this week's successes.

Scheduling its two-part auction of modern and contemporary Arab, Iranian and Turkish art for this week prompted the local galleries to follow suit, leading to a week-long extravaganza.

"It's the same in London, New York and elsewhere in the art world," says Michael Jeha, managing director of Christie's Middle East. "Having all the events condensed into one week creates more buzz, vibrancy and excitement for that particular region in that moment.

"And it not only generates more enthusiasm from collectors in that particular location, but internationally.

"Dubai is becoming an important centre on the global art market calendar and global collectors focus their attentions in certain moments so they like to have an art week in Dubai, and then they move on to London or New York or Hong Kong. It makes sense."

At Christie's Part 2 sale last night, 103 plots attracted a total value of $2,260250.

Sixteen new artists were featured in the sale with the top-selling piece by the contemporary Syrian artist Louay Kayyali, The Strange Lady Arlette Anhoury, attracting $170,500 from an estimate of between $40,000 and $60,000.

At Christie's Part 1 sale on Tuesday, the 29 items brought $3,640,100, with almost all of the works sold and auction records set for five artists.

With buyers from 13 countries bidding and 50 per cent of the lots selling above estimates, Christie's was understandably delighted.

"We have a lot of records across our sales but to do five new records in the Part 1 sale is a particularly strong achievement, and I think it reflects the strength of the Middle Eastern art market," says Mr Jeha.

"It's a deepening market that is gradually internationalising and that is great for its long-term sustainability."

Such was the buzz at the Part 1 sale on Tuesday that the top lot, Pecheurs a Rosette, by the Egyptian artist Mahmoud Said, sold for $818,500, from an estimate of between $400,000 and $600,000.

"Mahmoud Said is the father of Egyptian modern art. It's a great piece and our success on Tuesday was about the quality of the artist," says Mr Jeha.

"You are only as good as what you sell and we sell extremely high-quality art, and throughout the region there are a large number of particularly strong artists. That's what shines through and collectors around the world are seeing that."

While Part 1 featured higher-value pieces, Part 2, designed for young or new collectors, included estimates as low as $3,000.

"The way to increase the depth of buying in any market is to not only focus on established collectors but also on the collectors of tomorrow," says Mr Jeha.

"Like anything, buying art takes time to get adjusted to and the people who spend $5,000 initially will often have no problem spending $100,000-plus on a work of art in five years' time, so it's important to encourage young collectors."

This is a philosophy shared by Mr Samawi. At his young collectors event, he helped newcomers to become accustomed to the process by first explaining how an auction works, and then kept the atmosphere light throughout the bidding by cracking jokes.

"We try to educate people and help them feel more comfortable," Mr Samawi says. "It is a bit more accessible, more relaxing and less intimidating.

"Not every piece of work has to be $20,000, $30,000 or $50,000. You can get great works of art at affordable prices.

"The toughest threshold when it comes to getting someone to buy is to get them to buy their first artwork. Once they've bought the first piece, they're more likely to trust themselves and go to the galleries and collect."

Part of the success of recent Middle East auctions has been because the incessant headlines generated by the Arab Spring have turned the world's focus to the region.

"It does add some curiosity when people are hearing a lot about a country. They may start to wonder what else is going on," says Mr Samawi.

"A lot of artists are now expressing their emotions, given what's happened in the region, through their pieces. It's only natural, so there is a wider range of art coming out that is politically focused.

"But the people that were interested in Mohannad Orabi's piece just thought it was a beautiful piece. Yes, the artist happens to be from Syria, so maybe there were some underlying emotions in the expression on the woman's face, but anyone looking at that piece wouldn't even think it was made in the Middle East."

Whatever the reason for the interest, the facts speak for themselves. This is a growing market and one that is certainly going places.

Opera Gallery is planning at least two Dubai sales a year and Ayyam Gallery will increase young collectors events from two to three a year.

"Things were booming from 2006 to 2008 and, after the financial crisis, there was a slight adjustment but the true heart and soul of the art scene has been steadily developing and increasing," says Mr Samawi.

"Middle Eastern art is still up 10, 15 and even 20-fold from where it was five or six years ago.

"There might have been a couple of hiccups along the way, but over the course of time it's going to continue rising."

arayer@thenational.ae