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The Story of... How Christie's conquered the markets in Dubai

Here's how the global auctioneer challenged preconceptions and pioneered collecting in the UEA...

When news reports in 2005 announced that auction house Christie's would be opening an office in Dubai - the first international auctioneer ever to do so - it was a sign that things were going to change.

To the United Arab Emirates, Christie's would bring more than two centuries of experience in promoting art collecting and trading in, and between, new and far-flung countries.

It was a bold move in light of the slanted view of Arabian art held by some Westerners. In particularly, the notion that the Muslim art world is "backward and backward looking."

In the eyes of many Westerners, modernism never took place in the Gulf, leaving only classic Islamic art of the arabesque, miniatures and calligraphy.

Mahmoud Said's 1929 painting, Whirling Dervishes, sold for $2.5m

A crucial part of Christie's long-term plans in the Gulf would involve changing these centuries-old perspectives to promote a deeper understanding of Arabian art.

The result was a milestone, forged in May 2006 with Christie's first Dubai art sale. Mixing East and West, the likes of Picasso and Andy Warhol went under the hammer alongside Arabian, Indian and Iranian artists.

In the end, the auction proved a success with total sales of $8.5 million (AED 31.2 million) and buyers from 17 countries. With one sale, Christie's had successful transformed Dubai in a centre for art.

Yet with this success came doubts from some quarters, and worries about the superimposed influence of Western buyers and curators. Would Westerners now choose what is or isn't art, or worthy of museums, or worthy of value?

Since Christie's debut sale in 2006, its competitors have followed suit. These include Bonhams, which sold a BMW automobile for a World Record price earlier this year, and later auctioned a Jewad Salim sculpture for $384,000 in October - a World Record for a piece of Iraqi art.

Meanwhile, Christie's has gone from strength-to-strength in the region, most recently setting a World Record for a Middle Eastern artwork with the sale of Mahmoud Said's 1929 painting Whirling Dervishes for $2.5m.

A painting by Jewad Salim, the 'godfather of Middle Eastern art'

The piece was from the collection of Dr Mohammed Said Farsi - "one of the greatest patrons of Middle Eastern art" in Christie's own words - which highlighted the sale on contributed to total sales of $14,043,000 (AED 51,565,896).

"In one year Christie's Dubai achieved a 117% increase in the sale of Contemporary Middle Eastern art," said Michael Jeha, Managing Director of Christie's in the Middle East. Artworks were consigned from 15 different countries and dispersed among buyers from 18 different countries.

According to Jeha, the Christie's ongoing success has helped transform Dubai "from a local to a regional and global force in just four years."

And it isn't only art. Along with Bonhams' successful classic cars sale, Christie's also enjoyed a high-profile jewellery auction last month, also in Dubai. Big sales included a $110,500 IWC Grade Complication watch and a rare Melo pearl.

As for worries that the Arab collectibles markets are being overly influenced by Western buyers, the big sales enjoyed by Christie's, Bonhams and others is helping to breath home grown life into the Gulf.

This rare Melo pearl starred in Christie's recent Dubai jewellery sale

Dubai and Abu Dhabi have started holding their own art fairs, showcasing contemporary works by ones-to-watch like Ahmed Mustapha, Abbas Kiarostami and Iran's Farhad Moshiri alongside noted Western artists.

At the same time, UAE government funded projects like the 'Culture Zone' on Saadiyat Island aim to boost the marketplace for contemporary Arabian art; while pioneering galleries like the Agial in Beirut are also playing key roles in the development of the region's contemporary art scene.

Meanwhile, Arabian art is fast catching on among the region's own investors, quashing initial fears that only foreign investors would take part in the new markets. In these uncertain times, Arabian art offers a relatively untapped, growing and prosperous niche.

The final part of the Farsi collection to come to auction, a group of 40 works by Egyptian artists, will be offered at Christie's in Paris on November 9.


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Images: Christie's and Bonhams

Last updated: 3 November 2010