Frieze, Christie’s, and the Dubai Effect

The international auction houses are, naturally, grand masters in the art of hype and hyperbole. Following Christie’s first auction in the Arab world, of modern and contemporary art in Dubai in May 2006, dealers, artists, and the media followed suit, hailing this as the most important development in the art market since the “discovery” of Chinese contemporary art, and as evidence that there is a burgeoning regional market for regional art. Doubling pre-sale estimates, the sale of Indian, Arab, Iranian, and western art reached $8.5 million, with fifty-three new artist records set, including eight for the soaring Indian market.

Few established Indian buyers had made the short trip from Delhi or Mumbai, but a clutch of Gulf-based collectors, several new to contemporary art and the auction process, were willing to invest heavily — and for international market observers, this was the real news. A new United Arab Emirates-based collector working in the diamond business, who spent around $2 million during the evening, took the top lot, Rameshwar Broota’s Numbers; estimated at $80,000–100,000, its price soared to $912,000. Egyptian painter Ahmed Moustafa’s Where the Two Oceans Meet (2001) was the only Middle Eastern work in the top ten; estimated at $100,000–120,000, it sold for $284,800.

There have, of course, been other sales of contemporary Arab and Iranian art but, boosted by Christie’s typical pomp and professionalism, the May 24 sale did appear to denote a new commitment from regional collectors — or, at least, for the first time in public, at auction. Fifty-three percent of the buyers came from the Middle East, and of these, eighty percent were from the UAE. Christie’s move to set up an office in Dubai and launch their program of sales in the region with art (rather than jewelry, for example), seen by some as a gamble, has so far paid off: sixty-three percent of registrants to bid were new to the auction house.

Artist records were set for key modernist painters from the region, including Ahmed Moustafa, Lebanese abstract painter Paul Guiragossian, Iraqi Dia Al-Azzawi and pop iconist Chant Avedissian, some realizing twice or three times the estimates for their work. Christie’s had admitted before the sale that their estimates were deliberately conservative, aimed at kick-starting a market. They were aided by a handful of keen buyers dotted in among the Hello! crowd, including Dr Anwar Mohammed Gargash, minister of state for Federal, National, and Council Affairs in the UAE Cabinet, who paid triple the estimate for the opening lot, an unremarkable work by Iraqi Shakir Hassan Al-Said.

By the time auctioneer Jussi Pylkkänen, president of Christie’s Europe and the Middle East, had reached the selection of Iranian art, the crowd had thinned out, leaving front rows of experienced collectors and consigners, including Dubai gallerists, former director of the Tehran Contemporary Art Museum Alireza Sami-Azar, and London-based curator Rose Issa. Still, there was room for anomalies that exposed the immaturity of this market, or perhaps the “gotta have it” mantra of the Dubai shopper. A Shirin Neshat image in an edition of 250 went for ten times its estimate, and for almost double that of another of the Iranian New Yorker’s works, also from the Women of Allah series, in an edition of ten. Farhad Moshiri’s textured map of Iran, talked up by Pylkkänen before and during the sale, was bought by a young UAE-based British expat for $48,000, four times its estimate.

The tales spun about the auction, through the summer and autumn, have entered the realm of fantasy. Some disgruntled dealers labelled the Arab and Iranian market — on the basis of its one outing — a seller’s rather than a buyer’s market. Others have been wagging their tongues about fake phone bidding and hyped estimates. “Agents” have been stalking artists in Tehran, promising a way into the next sale — on February 1, again at Jumeirah Emirates Towers hotel — and the golden ticket to those Dubai dollars. Christie’s, in the meantime, is keeping its head and looking to repeat the formula, maintaining conservative estimates; works already consigned include another calligraphic painting by Ahmed Moustafa, plus works by Chafic Abboud and Syrian realist Louay Kayyali.

Compared with the animated bidding for Arab and Indian works, interest in a handful of western works in the May sale was lackluster, but that hasn’t deterred the organizers of the inaugural Gulf Art Fair, scheduled for March 8–10, 2007, at Dubai’s Madinat Jumeirah resort. Indeed, at Frieze Art Fair in October, for the first time, British, American, and European dealers seemed aware of, even fascinated by, Dubai’s potential as a center for the international contemporary art market — something that seemed unthinkable when the London fair began four years ago. The Gulf Art Fair has signed up 33 galleries to date, including Galerie Baudoin Lebon (Paris), Lisson and Albion (London), and PaceWildenstein (New York), among other big guns. Like Christie’s, they’re stressing their long-term commitment to the emirate and the regional art market.

Besides Dubai’s prospects as an artistic cash cow, there was also palpable interest in Arab artists at Frieze — again, for the first time. Beirut-Hamburg gallery Sfeir-Semler focused on Beirut. Its stand included both Lebanese and international artists making work about the city, and gallerist Nathalie Khoury reported “incredible buzz” for the Middle Eastern work, including photography and installation by Akram Zaatari, Walid Raad, and Marwan Rechmaoui.

Istanbul’s Platform Garanti had been invited as part of the artists’ program, and in that capacity, collected a library onsite during the fair. Townhouse Gallery, Cairo, used their corridor space wisely, exhibiting a wall collage by Lara Baladi, which drew considerable attention from Italian curators and collectors, and installing a booth, mainly showing Wael Shawky’s powerful work The Cave (which was also included in a video program curated by Christine Tohme).

William Wells, Townhouse director, said that Shawky’s work “drew strong interest from the influential British art scene and was also seriously followed by Israeli visitors.” Those investing in Townhouse artists were largely from the Arab diaspora, but Wells notes that the increased international awareness of the Middle East that followed 9/11 has yet to dip: “I thought that interest in artists from the region might taper off, but it’s, in fact, the opposite. The problem is, can we sustain this interest as a contemporary art community without repeating ourselves?”