Middle East art collecting: from a $250m Cezanne to Jewad Salim

Brazil, Russia, India, China - otherwise known at the BRIC nations. Top collectibles auctions around the world are seeing increasing participation from each of these countries.

And it isn't only the BRIC nations which are helping boost the collectibles markets, but also the Middle East. This is especially remarkable if you consider that five years ago hardly anyone mentioned modern and contemporary art from the Arab region.

But this is changing, and fast...

The latest evidence came with this week's World Record sale of Cezanne's painting Card Players. It sold from the collection of George Embiricos, the Greek shipping magnate, for $250m. The buyers were none other than the Qatari Royal Family.

"We are investing everywhere..."

This isn't the first time that the Qatari royals have made their presence felt on the global art markets. In 2010, rumours circulated that Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani had set his sights on buying Christie's.


Jewad Salim's Standing Girl

"We are investing everywhere, even in Harrods," the Emir told the Financial Times newspaper. About Christie's, he said: "It depends on the opportunity, if a good one presents itself we will not hesitate."

Christie's, as it happens was also the first international auction house to set up a permanent base in the Middle East back in 2005. The Qatari Emir's dealings with Christie's included his $12.7m purchase of a circa 1st-2nd century marble statue, The Jenkins Venus, in 2002.

The Sheikh is also known to have collected fine jewellery, 18th century French furniture, classic cars, rare books and even antique bicycles.

Many of the Sheikh's purchases, as with the Cezanne sale, reflect Middle Eastern collectors' ever-growing love of Western art.

But what about Middle Eastern art produced in the region itself?

'Western attitudes' give way to World Record art sales

Globalisation is always accompanied by the threat of an overriding Western influence. The same is true of the global art markets. Like, for instance, the prejudice that Middle Eastern art is "backward" because people judge it on Western values, rather than Arabian values.

Unlike Europe's art traditions, which go back centuries, there has never been any history of art in Arab countries. Painting, and especially sculpture, are uncommon in Arab regions.

Fortunately, 'Western attitudes' are changing - as has been shown in top auction sales.

Like the 2010 auctioning of a sculpture by Iraqi artist Jewad Salim. 'Mother and Child' brought $384,000 (Dh 1.4m) which set a new World Record price for an Iraqi artwork.

Arab art outperforms Damien Hirst

Jewad Salim's auction success certainly wasn't a one-off. Previous sales at Christie's Dubai have seen contemporary Arab artists outsell Western 'blue chips'. For instance, a Christie's auction in 2007 saw Ahmed Mustapha's Qu'ranic Polyptych of Nine Panels bring $657,000.

At the same sale, Damien Hirst's artwork, Atorvastatina, brought a relatively low $481,000.

It's fitting that these sales were enjoyed by Christie's. The international auctioneer's first Middle East art sale (totalling $8.5m, AED 31.2m) in May 2006 got the ball rolling. It was the first held in the region to showcase Arabian, Indian and Iranian artists alongside the likes of Picasso and Andy Warhol.


Cezanne Card Players World Record Price Qatar
Cezanne's Card Players is now owned by the Qatari Royal Family

Why invest in Arab art?

Put simply: the Arabian art markets are still fairly new and buyers are still catching on.

Because of this, rare artworks by Jewad Salim and other artists have yet to reach their full potential as assets. This gives you plenty of opportunities to acquire bargains before their values grow...

How do we know that Arab art values are on the up? Well, there are various factors.

Aside from growing auction values, the UAE is making strides to embrace its own contemporary art heritage. Dubai and other regions have started holding their own art fairs starring the likes of Ahmed Mustapha and Iran's Farhad Moshiri. In other words, UAE buyers are also catching on.

Meanwhile, in the West, prominent Arab art representatives include Princess Alia al-Senussi of Libya, currently on the committee for Middle Eastern art at London's Tate Modern, and Arab art expert Saleh Barakat of the UK's Fine Art Fund.

These are exciting times for the Arab art markets. With many artworks yet to reach their full value potential, and growing interaction between Western and Arabian collectors, there should be plenty of great opportunities for you in 2012 and beyond.

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