Middle East art market

Record-breaking art auctions are becoming commonplace in the UAE. As Christie's prepare for another sale we look at the state of the art market in Dubai.


Visit an independent, mid-range commercial gallery in most of the art capitals of the world – from Sydney to London, Paris to New York – and you could be forgiven for thinking that what’s on offer is largely a spectator sport. You know, theoretically, that these works are for sale, but for the most part people tend to come to look at what’s on display rather than to buy it – a plethora of red dots (those tiny stickers that denote an artwork has been sold) tend not to disfigure too many gallery walls.

In Dubai, however, things are done rather differently. In our city, the gallery ‘scene’ may have only really recently begun to come alive, but come alive it has with a vengeance. Not only are more galleries opening up month on month, year on year, but the market here is distinguished by a razor-sharp commercial edge. Try to play ‘spot the red dot’ in a Dubai art gallery (yes, those of us on the Time Out A&C desk really do know how to have fun), and it’s pretty much game over before you’ve begun – so quickly are exhibited works being snapped up that you’re better off playing ‘spot the blank wall tag’ instead.

Off-the-record conversations with those closely associated with of some of Dubai’s most cutting-edge galleries reveal this observation to be accurate. One talks of how most shows are sold out before they even open, another of the ‘Christie’s effect’ – how the introduction to the region of international auction houses has helped to ‘trigger’ the market overall.

It’s hard to disagree: in February of this year an auction of contemporary Middle Eastern art held by London-based auction house Bonhams saw the first contemporary work by an artist from the region sell for over one million US dollars. And with more big auctions scheduled, the market doesn’t look like it’s going to slow down any time soon.

Last month, Christie’s Middle East – the Dubai-based arm of the renowned auction house – published the results of its survey into the art market in the region. A YouGov Siraj poll of over 100,000 GCC residents it revealed, among other things, that 60 per cent of those questioned have purchased some sort of art, most commonly paintings, and that four in 10 participants anticipated spending more on art in the next five years. (Only property had more ‘importance value’ the poll revealed, although Christie’s categorisation of jewellery and watches as ‘art’ is likely to leave purists questioning whether that so-called importance is less to do with the soul-satiating beauty that is synonymous with ‘proper’ art than it is with bling.)

‘Our first sale was in May 2006,’ reveals Michael Jeha, managing director of Christie’s Middle East, ‘and things have moved very quickly.’ He notes that while the ‘enthusiasm was always there’ (the company actually set up its Dubai-based operation in 2005, with half a dozen full-time staff now based in the UAE office), things have indeed rapidly expanded recently, something he puts down to the growing thirst for art in the region overall.

‘If you look at the number of galleries that have opened up in Dubai,’ he says, ‘there’s something like over 22 now compared to around five only two years ago. There are exhibitions on a weekly basis, whereas before there was one every month or every couple of months.’ Jeha also nods to ‘increasing high-level support from government authorities’, which have led to, among other things, Abu Dhabi’s soon-to-be-built Guggenheim and Louvre museums and the launch of ‘Khor Dubai’ – a 10-strong cluster of culture and heritage sites scheduled to be built in Shindagha by 2015. ‘All these players and factors,’ he says, ‘have helped to increase the demand and appetite for art.’

Factor in the knowledge that, while in much of the rest of the world credit is crunching, the Middle East, with its rising oil prices, and what Jeha calls ‘different client sectors’ (wealthy expats from the likes of India, Arabia and Europe) in Dubai specifically, who have ‘all fuelled the demand and appetite for art because it’s something they’re used to when they were back in their own countries and now they’re here’, and you have a market that’s booming like no other. ‘There’s a lot of excess liquidity,’ as Jeha rather neatly puts it.

It’s all good news for the market, no? If the recent glut of quality exhibitions Time Out has attended are anything go by, all that liquidity seems to be wending its way from auction house (Christie’s, Bonhams) to art fair (Creek, Art Dubai) to independent gallery (Third Line, B21, XVA et al) quite merrily. Certainly one of the best things about Dubai’s current riotous arts scene is the enthusiasm of everyone involved.

Antonia Carver, co-editor of Bidoun magazine has noted that there’s an arts- related buzz about in the city that reminds her of what it felt like to be in London in the 90s at the height of the Brit Art boom, while Jeha says his company’s auctions regularly draw between 600-700 would-be buyers, which adds to the buzz in the room. ‘People aren’t really used to auctions in this region,’ he elaborates, ‘so there’s still a lot of excitement, whereas elsewhere, if you go to auctions in London or Paris, often the room’s quite empty, there’s a lot of telephone bidding; I’d say it’s the reverse in Dubai.’

Excitement or over-excitement? The painting that drew the million-dollar sale at the Bonhams auction (‘Eshgh’, or ‘Love’, by Iranian Farhad Moshiri) was only estimated to fetch between US$150-200,000. Can those kinds of levels be sustained?

Jeha believes so, noting that ‘there are a number of artists that will continue to soar’, even as, over time, the market begins to find its own level. ‘As in any other market internationally, the great artists will continue to sell and sell well and the rest will tend to drop off,’ he explains. Until then, expect to see a lot more red dots about.

Christie’s next auction is on April 29 and 30. For more information phone 04 361 5323.

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