Even before recent political revolts in the Middle East seized headlines, painters, printmakers, muralists and other artists were busy capturing the volatile mood of the region. Now they’ve captured the attention of a growing number of international investors and art lovers, too.
In the past decade, investors and collectors have bought more Middle Eastern art and at higher prices than at any other point in history. These days, the auction houses of Sotheby’s in Doha, Qatar, and Christie’s in Dubai routinely break records. Christie’s art sales in Dubai have more than doubled to $29.6m between 2012 and 2014.
Iran held its first contemporary art auction in July 2013, with 80 sales totalling almost $2m. In 2006, Sotheby’s in London hosted the first standalone exhibition of Middle Eastern contemporary art, seen by many as a turning point for international art purchases from the region. Some see this surge in global attention as validation that Middle Eastern art is a worthwhile investment.
“People had the idea that not much was produced in the Middle East. Everyone was shocked. They said: Really? This is coming out of Lebanon? Syria? Iraq? Saudi Arabia?,” said Lina Lazaar, Sotheby’s director and international specialist of contemporary art.
Prices of Middle Eastern art are rising, but some experts say many pieces are still undervalued.
As a result, there is a chance that collectors who buy early could see the prices of their purchases rise significantly — although for the time being there is a very low rate of resale.
“The industry has evolved and grown so much,” said Alexandra Kindermann, spokeswoman for Christie’s, which opened its office in Dubai in 2005 for a then-nascent international art market in the region. By 2010, private collectors had proliferated. Kindermann noted that in the past 10 years around 80 art galleries have opened in the United Arab Emirates, the Louvre is slated to open a branch in Abu Dhabi in coming months and small-sized auction houses are also launching. One of the most important galleries in the region is Ayyam, which first opened its doors in Damascus in 2006, then branched out to London and throughout the Middle East.
“I think today the prices of Middle Eastern art… are fair in general,” said Ayyam Gallery owner Khaled Samawi. “Some great artists, while seeking very high prices currently, are still a bargain internationally and once they are on the global art collector radar, their prices should increase significantly.”
Yet hopes for return on investment should not be the only impetus to collect, he added. “I believe art is priceless and people should concentrate more on the cultural and beauty of it with the investment side coming as an added long-term advantage and not as the main reason for collecting,” he said.
Sultan Al Qassemi, a Dubai-based avid collector and promoter of Middle Eastern art, and founder of the Sharjah based Barjeel Art Foundation, said, “I believe these are the formative years of the globalisation of Arab art.”
Why so popular?
Several factors are driving the surge in artistic creativity, global collector interest and rising prices, said Rico Franses, director of art collections and galleries at the American University of Beirut. For one, artists have been inspired by the large-scale political activism throughout the region, including the 2009 Green Revolution in Iran. At the same time, international auctions and exhibitions have begun to exhibit the region’s creations and there has also been a surge in the academic study of art, Franses said.
For Middle Eastern artists, this period offers an unprecedented opportunity for exposure and money-making. At the same time, there are ripe opportunities for collectors and investors, who don’t face export restrictions on the works.
Works for the most renowned Middle Eastern modern artists, such as Mahmoud Said, Abdul Hadi El-Gazzar, Ali Omar Ermes, Parviz Tanavoli and Shafic Abboud, have risen in price over the past years. In October, 2013, a piece by Turkish-Jordanian artist Fahr El Nissa Zeid sold at Christie’s auction for $2.7m, almost reaching the world record price held for an Iranian artist, which was a 2008 piece by Parviz Tanavoli that sold for $2.8m.
“Middle East art… only recently (has) reflected higher valuations,” said Qassemi. “As a result, artists can produce work full-time rather than as a part-time hobby, which gives them more time to read and learn about other practices.”
Kevork Mourad, a New York-based Syrian graphic sketch artist from Aleppo, who collaborates with musicians, including cellist Yo-Yo Ma, in doing his drawings live accompanied with music, is optimistic when he looks at the doors that have opened for some of his peers. “I have to wait for the right moment,” he said. “I’ve been so lucky with these performances.”
Some have suggested that there is a bubble or a danger of over-commercialisation of Middle Eastern art. But Kindermann, whose Middle Eastern pieces are often auctioned in the range of $500,000 to $600,000, says that the turnover rate of the art they’ve sold in Dubai has been extremely low, suggesting clients are buying the pieces and holding on to them long term.
As in other markets, there’s nothing to stop those willing to pay high prices for art as they see fit.
“Art has always been like that,” said Franses. “Art is worth what the kings and emperors are willing to pay for it.”
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