The most recent sale of Modern and Contemporary Arab, Iranian and Turkish Art for Christie’s Dubai, held on 19 April, 2011 was a stunning success in which 42 world auction records were broken; since 2006, the auction house has set 360 new records. Al-Masry Al-Youm spoke with Christie’s Middle East Director Isabelle de la Bruyere about the details of the sale and the current market for contemporary Middle Eastern Art.
Al-Masry Al-Youm: What factors made this most recent sale in Dubai such a success? Why did some works sell for so much more than was expected?
Isabelle De La Bruyere: The sale was very well curated. The works that we chose were among the best of each artist. There were many more contemporary works and fewer [total] works than usual. Another factor was that we had the Edge of Arabia pieces. We had six pieces from Edge of Arabia artists [an initiative that promotes contemporary Saudi Arabian artists], and we had the most iconic pieces from each artist. The sale results were way above the presale estimates because the works had a unique provenance and were of very high quality. Collectors were aware that there wouldn’t be another opportunity to obtain such work. The success was really because it was so carefully curated.
Al-Masry: Can you talk about some of the other works that were particularly successful, particularly Egyptian artist Abdel Hadi al-Gazzar?
De La Bruyere: We had much more contemporary pieces in this sale than in our last show, when we had the Mohammed Farsi Collection of Modern Egyptian Art, but we still had a strong collection of modern art. We had one of his most iconic works from Abdel Hadi al-Gazzar, which is well known by collectors. It is a fantastic example of the artist’s symbolist period, and in it you can see the influence that French art had on him. The artwork is very hard to find. We also had a work by Jewad Selim, who is Iraqi, which was a wooden sculpture from 1941. It is a very unique work that has only been seen twice prior to this sale, in many many years. It is so rare that it is almost impossible to find. Bidders were aware of the quality and rarity of these works.
Al-Masry: What has created increased interest in the Middle Eastern contemporary art market in general?
De La Bruyere: We have seen increased interest for some time now. Our last sale, of the Mohammed Farsi Collection, had bidders from 25 different countries, from South America to China. The sale numbers are important, but the number of participants is more important. Christie’s Dubai has the highest growth in new clients, and is the fastest growing office for Christie’s International.
At the last sale, 40 percent of the bidders were new registrants. That shows a truly successful sale. We didn’t only have record sales, but 40 percent of the participants were bidding for the first time. This recognizes the talent in the region. The increased interest has also come because Middle Eastern artists have been gaining attention in galleries and museums, as well as art fairs all over the world. That is a very promising factor.
Al-Masry: You mentioned the last sale attracted collectors from all over the world. Is the increased interest coming from any particular region? Is it primarily from collectors in the Middle East or international collectors?
De La Bruyere: When we talk about the increased interest, it is not coming from the Middle East because when we first started 80 percent of the buyers were from that region. The issue is diversifying the buyers. Now only 45 percent are from the Middle East. The group of buyers is becoming increasingly diverse, and that is an important sign of growth for this region. The Middle East is the fastest growing region for Christie’s.
Al-Masry: Do you think the political situation in the region is connected to the increased interest in Middle Eastern contemporary art?
De La Bruyere: The Middle Eastern art market is one we have been looking to for the last five years. I wouldn’t say that the political situation is increasing interest in art in the region.
Al-Masry: Were you surprised by the success of the sale?
De La Bruyere: I think it really depends on each piece. To use Edge of Arabia as an example again, Abdel Nasser Gharem is one of the most important artists from Saudi Arabia. He is young, only 37, and he is an officer in the army. Art is his passion, but it is also his hobby because he is an officer. His piece was the only absolutely unique work in the Edge of Arabia group; every other work was photography or a print edition. But it was difficult to estimate how much the work would sell for because previously his record was US$25,000. It is three meters in diameter so a collector cannot fit it into their home. It is a very hard work to price, even if we knew it was worth US$250,000 or US$350,000, we could not guess that it would pass US$500,000.
Very few of Gharem’s works have been on the market before. We expected it to sell for a lot, but not US$860,000, which is what it sold for. But when two or three or five collectors want a work and they know they will not be able to find it again, then that is the beauty of auctions. The market does it all. It was really an amazing piece. Even if he made more such works, it would not be coming as a part of Edge of Arabia, which was being auctioned for charity and which was a special case of artists taking their education into their own hands and saying that they wanted to do things differently.