x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

The art of the deal

Feature Stock markets are crashing, companies are folding and there seems to be no end to the downward spiral. The perfect time to invest in art?

Detail from <i>Faces of Your Other</i> by the Moroccan artist Rahmani Zakaria, who uses calligraphy to create images.
Detail from <i>Faces of Your Other</i> by the Moroccan artist Rahmani Zakaria, who uses calligraphy to create images.

Stock markets around the world are painting an increasingly tragic picture of the global economy and there is growing evidence that the UAE may not escape the trauma unscathed. But what's bad for the business world is not automatically bad for art. For centuries, the rich and powerful have known that art is about more than just pretty pictures. When stock markets, bonds, property and even gold become tough ways to make money, wealthy individuals who are adverse to storing their cash in shoe boxes become overnight art collectors.

The global turmoil certainly hasn't affected the number of art galleries in Dubai. Cuadro, Opera Gallery, Art Sawa and Art Space (which relocated), all opened their doors in the weeks directly following the liquidations, bail outs and nationalisations of some of the world's most trusted financial institutions. Each of the new galleries are attempting to carve out their own niche in the increasingly crowded Dubai scene. They flaunt their belief in art as an investment and all but Art Sawa are located within less than a minute's walk from one another, in the heart of the Dubai International Financial Centre.

Being close to monied clientele is undoubtedly one of the biggest advantages of the DIFC location. "Typically, the people who buy from us are the kind that can definitely afford it," says Palestinian-born Maliha Tabari, the managing director of the Art Space gallery. "I have to admit, mostly they are people in the banking industry." In a little over half a decade, Tabari has witnessed a phenomenal growth in the Dubai market.

"I've been in Dubai for six years and I came when there was almost no art," she says. "At the time, if a painting was $3,000 (Dh11,000), it was like, 'That's so expensive'. Nothing could sell at that price. We were trying hard to sell pieces by Farhad Moshiri for about $2,000 (Dh7,500) or $3,000 (Dh11,000) - now his work is worth $200,000 (Dh740,000) or $300,000 (Dh1.1million)," she says. "We are talking about a five-year period, so it really happened fast."

Moshiri is well known for his ironic mixing of traditional Iranian forms. Born in Iran and educated in California, he is best known for his painted jars, elegantly adorned with Middle Eastern scripts. The last five years have seen a massive proliferation in commercial art galleries in the city. From just two names to around 30, the list includes international sellers and high-end spaces showcasing masterpieces with million-dollar price tags.

"If you invest in a Picasso, you cannot lose any money. Whenever we have a crisis, people heavily invest in masterpieces," says Bertrand Epaud, the manager of Opera Gallery. The new space in Dubai is the company's 10th global outlet and specialises in high-end works. Its walls currently host pieces by Picasso, Dali, Monet and Renoir, as well as other contemporary and Middle Eastern artists. "Some of the Chinese artists we have, for example, used to sell pieces for $50,000 (Dh184,000), three years ago. Now they cost a million Euros. Zhang Xiaogang five years ago you could buy for $50,000 (Dh184,000), now not less than $1 million (Dh 3.7 million)," says Epaud.

The contemporary Chinese surrealist painter is known for his stylised portraits of Chinese people, usually with large, dark eyes. What collectors and investors do with their purchases is another matter of debate. Andrew Christon, the manager of the Capital Club, a members-only stomping ground for Dubai's business elite, says the cliché of wealthy investors keeping masterpieces boxed-up, under lock and key, is not a myth.

"There are certainly collectors out there who buy art purely as an investment and are not particularly interested in the art. They are the people who would buy the piece then lock it away in a basement for a few years and perhaps pull it out in five years' time." All of this is happening at a time when Middle Eastern art has never been more fashionable. A global, post-September 11 fascination with Arab and Iranian art coincided with Dubai's most rapid period of expansion and helped it to succeed as a marketplace.

Auction houses have been catalysts in building the market for Middle Eastern art. Christie's in Dubai has bullish expectations of raising more than $26 million (Dh95.5m) this year in sales of Middle Eastern art. In April, the auctioneer set a record for the sale of an individual piece of Middle East art, the $2.8million (Dh10.3m) sale of Praviz Tanavoli's sculpture, The Wall (Oh Persepolis). Will Lawrie, the head of sales for Arab and Iranian contemporary art at Christie's Middle East, says the sale was "the single most flabbergasting figure" of the year.

"The Parviz Tanavoli sculpture was unique, really a one off thing from the 1970s. An unbelievable thing." Standing almost two metres tall, the bronze monolith is covered with calligraphic engravings. Although the sculpture would look at home in ancient Babylon, the figures upon it resemble robotic, space age beings. Earlier this year in London, Damien Hirst, one of the world's most well-known living artists, argued that the credit crunch-defying £111m (Dh727m) he raised at auction could inspire younger generations to see art as a highly lucrative endeavour, not just a creative one.

"There has never been a recognition of being an artist as a profession [in the Emirates]. But there is now a glimmer that people are realising that they could do this for a living," says Jill Hoyle, the manager of Tashkeel. A hub for young artists and designers, Tashkeel opened in January 2008. It is supported by the avid artist and photographer Lateefa bint Maktoum, the daughter of the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid.

The non-profit organisation tries to encourage artists on the ground level by offering free studio space. She says that the proliferation of galleries and growing investment market has made art much more high profile. "People are more aware of the role that art plays in life. I think now it is being taken more seriously." Still, the UAE is not a place for starving artists displaying in abandoned warehouses. The blurry-eyed, caffeine-addicted conceptualists of Paris and New York are probably in no rush to move here. For artists who are not selling in six figures, rent is a major obstacle and prohibitively expensive studio space make the UAE "scene" more of a marketplace than a breeding ground.

"A lot of the new galleries that are opening up are commercial galleries and there's nothing wrong with that. But what we are trying to do is work from the other end and create facilities where the artist can do their work."