A new capital for art

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If the museum of Islamic art and Jean Nouvel’s Burj Doha look like Qatar’s most permanent investments in architecture, the real art business in the country is growing somewhere else.

Art collectors in Doha are gearing up for action, and renowned auction houses are sensing this phenomenon. Altogether, 55 percent of Christie’s international buyers come from the Middle East and since 2004 the London-based auction house saw new buyers in the Middle East growing by a startling 400 percent.

“The most committed country to collecting art in the region is Qatar. Qatar stands out as being nationally interested in art,” says Robin Woodhead, the chairman of Sotheby’s International. Sotheby’s first engaged with the Qatari collectors in 1989 with an auction of Arabian horses and today is the first and only international auction house to have an office in Doha.

Sotheby’s periodically organises previews of its auctions in Katara, the country’s cultural village, taking to Doha what are now perceived by local residents as small museums that are accessible to everyone. On 22 April, Sotheby’s is holding its third auction in Doha. This will include 37 modern and contemporary Arab and Iranian works of art, and seven international contemporary works, which combined are expected to raise in the region of $11m.

Expectations are pretty high as the auction will see works by leading Middle Eastern artists as well as international contemporary artists, including a landscape by Mahmoud Said. Said is known for being one of the pioneers of modern Egyptian art and an artist that sells very well. His ‘Whirling Dervishes’ was sold for $2.5m in Dubai in 2010, reaching the record for the highest price achieved for a work by an Arab artist at auction.

The last time Sotheby’s held its auction in Doha, in 2010, bidders from sixteen countries participated, showing that great international attention is now being afforded to a country that is still finding its feet on the global map.

The auction scene might seem a little intimidating, but you don’t have to be a billionaire to approach it. A lot of youngsters in their 20s and 30s have recently contacted Farah Rahim Ismail, Christie’s consultant in Qatar, as the new generation seems to be curious to know more about art and educated enough to know that there is also a business opportunity out there.

Anima Gallery’s director, Ghada Sholy, was surprised to see that some of her best buyers came from her student class. Located on the Pearl Qatar, the site is one of the very few, if not the only, international independent art galleries in Doha. Besides organising exhibitions and selling works of art, Anima Gallery also organises art classes with professors from Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU).

It’s a smart move that is good for both the community and for the gallery, since clients tend to buy art only if they can appreciate and understand its value. Every two months the gallery organises an exhibition with paintings that are valued between $2,000 and $200,000. It’s a wide price range that doesn’t scare inexperienced bidders off, and it also attracts buyers even in their late 20s and early 30s.

“In Dubai, where there is now a vibrant art scene, they started from art galleries and then moved to museums. In Doha, they did it the other way round, which is very wise because you educate people before selling,” says Sholy.

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