Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 June 2019

UAE leads the way as Middle East art market blossoms

Growth of the Middle East market has encouraged the establishment of larger, less commercial cultural institutions

Visitors attend Art Dubai on March 22, 2018 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Th region's art market is booming. Getty
Visitors attend Art Dubai on March 22, 2018 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Th region's art market is booming. Getty

For some years, the market for contemporary and modern Middle East art was described as "emerging" but now the UAE is leading the way as the region becomes firmly established in the international art market, both commercially and culturally.

“The geographical area that has come on strongly has been the [Arabian] Gulf. It's a dominant force in the market today and you see that in the high prices paid for Islamic manuscripts, both religious and secular, works on science and mathematics, and more decorative materials such as glass and ceramics, which has a broad appeal and is collected by a diverse array of buyers,” Edward Gibbs, the chairman of London auction house Sotheby’s in the Middle East and India, tells The National.

One of the first global names to arrive here was Christie's, also based in London, which held its first sale in Dubai in 2006. Among the lots on offer was the Iraqi modernist Shakir Hassan Al Said’s The Peasant, which sold for for $31,200 (Dh114,600). Sotheby’s set up its first outpost in Doha in 2008, before moving to Dubai International Financial Centre in 2017.

Both Christie's and Sotheby's have seen a decade of international success. They thrived during the initial boom of the 2000’s, weathered global economic instability during the late 2000s and have now consolidated their presence in the UAE as 2019 approaches.

In this region, following a slide in profits during 2011-2012, there has been a significant rebound. For Christie's - from modern and contemporary art alone - sales have hit more than $8m so far, and for Sotheby's the figure is $14.9m.

The growth of the Middle East art market has encouraged the establishment of larger, less commercial cultural institutions that bridge the gap between a booming and increasingly diverse UAE and the West.

The Louvre Abu Dhabi, established in 2017, has already attracted more than a million visitors in its initial year, The National reported in November - a figure that puts it among the top 70 museums worldwide to reach that level of audience, and certainly the only one in the region.

Also this year, the art world saw the foundation of the Sheikh Zayed Gallery at the British Museum in London and the opening of the cutting-edge Jameel Arts Centre in Dubai, headed by the British director Antonia Carver, who was previously the director of the Art Dubai fair.

A visitor looks at artworks made by a Palestinian artist at the annual Art Dubai exhibition in Dubai, United Arab Emirates March 21, 2018. Picture taken March 21, 2018. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES.
A visitor looks at artworks made by a Palestinian artist at the annual Art Dubai exhibition. Reuters

In May last year, she told Harpers Bazaar magazine the growth of the art scene in the UAE "has been organic in nature and driven by a series of such dedicated and passionate individuals, working across the commercial and non-commercial sector".

Ms Carver also pointed to what she referred to as the "leadership roles played by Sharjah Art Foundation, Art Dubai and Saadiyat Island and the Sheikha Salama Foundation".

The establishment of international, public-facing institutions is strengthening the Middle East art market further. According to Deloitte's Art & Finance Report 2017, the market is predicted to grow in worth (held in collections) by up to $53.6 billion by 2026 from $ 86.4bn in 2016. While the region’s market worth is not predicted to grow at quite the rate of Asia, at 8 per cent to 2026, it should make up 5.2 per cent of the global total, Deloitte said.

“I think what happened, especially post-2008 after the financial crisis, [was that] there was a closer examination of artists and I think the [Middle East] market really matured then ... The market is now far more sustainable, it’s rising at a much more gradual pace,” says Michael Jeha, managing director at Christie’s Middle East.

Anders Patterson, the chief executive of Art Tactic, an art market research firm based in London, concurs: "The Middle East art market is slowly maturing, with more museum institutions, more galleries and other art platforms emerging in recent years." However, he points out that the market is susceptible to geopolitical risks in parts of the region, such as Iran.

"The news that the Trump administration has unleashed its toughest ever sanctions against Iran last month, raises questions about the sustainability of the Iranian domestic art market going forward," says Mr Anders.


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Mr Gibbs says that while the more recent arrival of the big players has intensified attention on the Middle East, there has long been interest here. "The [classical Islamic] auction market started in the 1970s" he says, adding, “the Kuwait National Museum was the first Gulf gallery to open in the 1980s. It was torched and looted during the First Gulf War by Iraqi troops and its contents were emptied and carried back in trucks to Baghdad; before being rescued by a Unesco team.

"That museum began the collecting trend ... maturing into establishments like the Louvre in Abu Dhabi.”

Ashkan Baghestani, an expert on contemporary Middle East Art, says there was some concern among aficionados regarding the regional art scene this year but "it actually ended up being a very, very, good year [so far]”.

That continues what has been a growing trend, he says.

"We have some good numbers from business intelligence where over the past five years we sold $180m of Islamic and Middle Eastern art, with about 1,200 clients across the world,” he says.

This was, says Mr Gibbs, because of “a lot of cross-fertilisation and cross-marketing across our client base, and a growing western interest in our field”.

His advice for budding collectors is to follow their hearts rather than buy what appears to be the best investment. “We never refer to an artist, or art, as an investment, we always tell clients: ‘buy works that you truly appreciate, it's about building a collection, building a legacy'."

Mr Baghestani says a push by his company to increase awareness of the scene here has also helped, pointing to “our [Sotheby's] efforts to educate the local crowd in London, the [Middle East] diaspora, but also efforts to host educational panels in the Gulf and the institutions, the museums, that now have strong Mena acquisition boards.”

As an example. he cites the increase in the price of Iznik pottery, a decorated ceramic that was produced from the last quarter of the 15th century until the end of the 17th century, that have gone from around $800,000 [in 1993] to “over $6m [for an individual lot] including the premium”.

Mr Baghestani and Mr Gibbs point out that the rise of cultural establishments in the region is helping to power demand: “There are many foundations and museums blossoming across the Mena region and everyone wants the best pieces for their museums, and good pieces are rare," says Mr Baghestani.

Mr Gibbs adds: “With all these start-up projects ... when you’re building and starting a collection from scratch [that] creates a voracious appetite... fuelling this market and creating an exponential rise in prices. There's a special appetite for trophy pieces, and when you have something rare that ticks all the boxes [provenance, rarity and beauty], then you get the record prices.”

So alongside the economic growth of the UAE, the wider Middle East and North Africa, it seems the art market is also painting a positive picture for regional development - one that looks likely only to improve.

Updated: December 15, 2018 11:12 AM