The trick to successful art auction bidding, says one gallery owner, is to balance the competing demands of head and heart.
Art bidding for beginners
In the 1969 film The Magic Christian, Peter Sellers plays Sir Guy Grand, a wealthy eccentric determined to initiate his newly adopted son into the financial ways of the world, in a performance notable chiefly for a comic object lesson in how not to bid for art at auction.
Under the hammer is Dignity and Impudence, an oil painting of a bloodhound and a terrier sharing a kennel, by the English Victorian sentimentalist Sir Edwin Landseer (a work that was bequeathed to the Tate Gallery in 1859).
"Mark the manner of the others," Sellers whispers to his protégé as the bidding is opened by a man subtly raising a thumb. "Don't tip your hand, that's a fool's game."
The price rises quickly as a series of bidders use a variety of signals to attract the auctioneer's attention - a wink, a nod, a barely perceptible tug on a pocket handkerchief.
And then Sellers enters the fray, first by noisily cracking a knuckle on the middle finger of his left hand, and then by resorting to a range of increasingly less subtle techniques: knocking out a quick tune on an harmonica, hitting the auctioneer on the forehead with a sucker-dart from a toy gun, flashing an Aldis signal lamp, blasting a fog horn, loosing off two rounds from a pistol and waving a pair of semaphore flags.
These days, the auction world operates in a far less arcane atmosphere and Dubai, with a thriving sale scene and four major auctions every year, is the perfect place for first-time bidders to try their luck. No one need feel daunted, says Michael Jeha, the managing director of Christie's Middle East, and everyone is welcome.
"Christie's is interested in new buyers, young and old," he says. Today, "art is accessible; it's not just about million-dollar pieces, there's something for everyone, even someone who wants to spend US$3,000 [Dh11,052]".
Anyone can go along and watch an auction under way - and don't worry about inadvertently landing a Picasso by scratching your nose: these days, all bidders must pre-register for a sale - an easy process that involves a credit and address check - before they are issued with a numbered paddle with which to make their bids.
"Buying at auction is actually a very straightforward process; far easier than I think many people realise," says Mr Jeha.
Once registered, with both Christie's and Bonhams there are four ways to bid: in person, on the telephone, over the internet or by lodging an absentee bid, which the auctioneer will bring into play at the appropriate moment.
In some ways, this is the best way to make sure you don't bust your budget - and if the bidding stops shy of the amount you have registered, the piece will be yours for the lower figure.
But where's the fun in that? Ghada Kunash, owner of the Vindemia art and antiques gallery at Dubai's Jumeirah Beach Residence and an art collector and regular auction-goer, says buying at auction can be "a lot of fun, for sure; but you can easily be taken by the challenge of bidding, especially if you like something so much and you want to get it".
The trick, she says, is to balance the competing demands of head and heart.
"You need to know how much you are ready to pay, so you don't get carried away. At an auction, they will keep on pushing up the price, no matter what the real value is, as long as there is somebody bidding. But you need to decide before you enter: 'I have this much money, I like this piece, but this is the maximum I am going to pay for it.' And then try to restrain yourself."
Last Wednesday, Bonhams staged its first dedicated sale of photography in Dubai, in what Guy Vesey, its Middle East director, said was a deliberate exercise in accessibility, designed to reach out to "the new collectors": a breed of young professionals, with plenty of wall space and matching disposable income, who might not have thought before about buying art, at auction or anywhere else.
With accessibility of price and subject matter in mind, while the most expensive works on sale at the Royal Mirage Hotel were expected to fetch up to Dh150,000 - though in the event Shirin Neshat's Mystified and Camille Zacharia’s Cultivate your Garden both managed to raise only a little over Dh132,000 - the cheapest was a 1982 photograph of Mick Jagger by the British photographer Peter Anderson, estimated at between Dh3,700 and Dh4,400, but pushed up by bidding to Dh6,170.
Dubai's next sale is on Tuesday, when Christie's will auction a broad range of modern and contemporary Arab, Iranian and Turkish art in the Godolphin ballroom at the Jumeirah Emirates Towers Hotel, and it will be equally accessible.
Although the top lot might be out of reach to the average beginner - Fishing, a 1957 painting by the Egyptian modern artist Abdul Hadi El-Gazzar, is expected to fetch between $250,000 and $350,000 - with prices ranging from $2,000 to $3,000 expected to be achieved for an untitled fibreglass sculpture by the Iranian contemporary artist Nastaran Safaei, there is plenty to tempt the first-time buyer.
But is art bought at auction necessarily going to prove a sound investment? The answer can only be "possibly". The value of individual paintings can go up as well as down, as witnessed by the disappointing sale results in Dubai during the downturn, but nevertheless art is increasingly being treated as an asset class like any other.
In January, for instance, Emirates NBD, the biggest bank by assets in the UAE, announced a new service that offers advice on art investment to high-net-worth customers in partnership with the UK-based The Fine Art Fund Group, founded by Philip Hoffman, a former director of Christie's. "The value of a Canaletto will never go down to zero," Mr Hoffman once said. "It will never do an Enron or a Marconi."
Certainly, indices for modern and contemporary art compiled by Art Market Research since 1985 show a steady if initially unspectacular growth, with a minor peak in 1991 but a major rise starting in 2005 and culminating in a pre-Lehman Brothers all-time high in 2008. And, although prices dropped sharply after that, they never fell lower than 2007 figures - and now seem to be climbing energetically again.
"I think the time for being concerned about this art market being a bubble has passed," says Mr Jeha. "That was the concern back in early 2008; we all started to have concerns that the market was really overheating. What was going on was not sustainable. The market, including the Middle Eastern market, was rising indiscriminately, and I think we all secretly hoped for some sort of correction."
And they got one. Christie's first Dubai sale, in May 2006, raised a not immodest $8.5 million, bettered by the $9.4m in sales the following February and the $15.2m raised that autumn.
Bonhams followed with $13m in March 2008, setting 33 records - including the $1,048,000 paid for Iranian contemporary artist Farhad Moshiri's 2007 painting Eshgh (Love), which became the first work by an artist from the region to sell at auction for more than $1m.
A month later, in June 2008, Christie's sold $20m, including four works in excess of $1m, but then the bottom fell out of the market. Christie's next sale, in October that year, struggled to clear $8m, while a month later Bonhams could manage only $2.3m.
Now, however, the market seems to have bounced back, as evidenced by Christie's two sales in 2010, which together raised $29m - 120 per cent more than its comparable sales in 2009. "In our recent sale in October in Dubai we had the highest number of buyers and bidders to date, over 200," says Mr Jeha. "This is a sustainable art market now."
Nevertheless, says Mr Jeha, while "art can be an alternative asset class, if people want to view it as such", the most important advice for newcomers to the auction scene is "buy only what you like".
"We always advise people first and foremost to buy for aesthetic reasons; if you've bought what you like then at least you are not going to be so disappointed later on if it does go down. It's something you can hang on your wall and live with."
Rule two is to do your homework. Start by visiting an auction to see how it works. "We have many people who just come as a spectator and never participate - and we're happy for that; it adds to the atmosphere and excitement" - or even follow proceedings live online, Mr Jeha says.
And, when you do decide to take the plunge, do even more homework, says Ms Kunash. For a start, always take advantage of any preview. The items at Christie's Dubai sale next week, for example, can be viewed for three days beforehand. "Even at small auctions you have time to get a good seat and still have time to look at the items and examine them," she says.
"At auctions it is 'as is'; if you win you are going to be paying for the item, so you'd better have examined it before to see if there is any damage or anything else wrong with it."
Christie's specialists, says Mr Jeha, can talk to clients about the artists and the work. "What makes a particular work important, comparable prices, the condition and provenance of the pieces ... and why some artists' periods are worth more than others.
"And don't just seek advice from specialists in auction houses, seek advice from galleries and other collectors. The key point is make an informed decision."
And, perhaps, not to take too many tips from Peter Sellers.
Dubai Art Auction
Christie's sale of modern and contemporary Arab, Iranian and Turkish art, at the Godolphin Ballroom, Jumeirah Emirates Tower Hotel, Dubai, starts at 7pm on Tuesday. The sale items can be viewed between 2pm and 10pm tomorrow and Monday, and from 10am to 1.30pm on Tuesday. After registering with Christie's, the sale can be followed live online at christies.com/livebidding