A new capital for art

Qatar has turned into a massive power in the international art world, and Doha is now a new stop in most prestigious auction houses’ travel expeditions
By Francesca Astorri
Fri 29 Mar 2013 05:23 PM

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.

Art education will certainly help developing culture in the country as the taste and pleasure of enjoying art is something that is far easier to acquire at an early age. At the same time there are other initiatives that can be introduced to shorten the distance between people and art in Qatar. Interestingly, this is where banks can play a role.

In Europe and the US, art investments are treated with special attention by lenders, which tend to keep a low interest rate on loans that are requested to buy art. As a result, people are encouraged to invest. According to Sholy, banks in Qatar can play a key role in helping to develop an art scene with more galleries in Doha.

“Banks can play a role in the art business in Qatar, encouraging people to invest in art, and providing a lower interest rate on loans for artworks. This will help to open more galleries in Qatar as well: if they know that there are buyers, they will open more art galleries. If people feel that bankers are encouraging investment by supporting those buyers, more art galleries will eventually open,” Sholy says.

Opening an art gallery in Doha is an expensive business and Sholy still looks like a pioneer. But when she inaugurated the gallery last year she was looking for artists around the world to take their works to Doha. Now she receives an average of 20 emails a day from artists asking her to showcase their works. This also shows that artists from abroad are keeping an eye on the local art scene, since they know that Doha is a place where business gets done.

The fast-growing appetite and appreciation for art in the Middle East and the presence of the financial resources to build a wealthy business are better expressed by what some define as art shopping. Christie’s has sold over $231m of art, watches and jewellery in the Middle East since the first international art auction in the region took place in 2006. Parviz Tanavoli’s ‘The Wall (Oh Persepolis)’ was sold for $2.8m to an anonymous private bidder in 2008 at Christie’s auction in Dubai, ranking this lot as top in terms of purchase price at Christie’s between 2006 and 2011.

Adding an extra dimension is the fact that the world is discovering and developing a new taste for works of art from the Middle East. Since 2001, Sotheby’s has sold around $316m worth of artwork related to the Middle East. Some define it as the globalisation of art, overcoming that provincialism that has kept some markets only interested in pieces that originate from their own country.

If Middle Eastern collectors were initially more interested in buying Islamic art and works of art from their region, now the market has matured and they are clearly exploring other options as contemporary and modern European and American art.

Sotheby’s registered an increase of 21 percent in buying by Middle Eastern collectors in terms of international contemporary art sales. Global headlines told the story of Qatar shattering its ‘art rookie’ status when the country bought Paul Cezanne’s painting ‘The Card Players’ for the record price of $250m. A $72.8m painting by Mark Rothko has also ended up in Doha and, more recently Pablo Picasso’s ‘Child With A Dove’ was reported to be heading to a gallery in the country. This interest in international contemporary art is also supported and encouraged by the Qatar Museum Authority exhibitions. After Louise Bourgeois and Takashi Murakami exhibitions in 2012, the upcoming Damien Hirst exhibition in Doha is now the art event of 2013.

Some believe that from an art development point of view, Qatar closely resembles the US during the 1920s and 1930s. Many art institutions and iconic symbols as the Empire State Building (1931) and the Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan (founded in 1937) were built in the US in that period and Qatar seems to be going through a similar inspiring era: these tend to be the periods in which a country’s true soft power and heritage are born and bred.

As institutions, foundations and banks are investing in art, people start understanding the value of art as a long-lasting and profitable investment. Deutsche Bank has an art collection of more than 56,000 works, estimated at hundreds of millions of dollars. Harvard Business School’s collection of more than 200 pieces, assembled over the last two decades, is clearly not a short-term investment. Art works chosen carefully will increase in price over time and can therefore be regarded as an investment and an asset that needs to be managed accurately. Take Commerzbank, which decided to buy a sculpture by Alberto Giacometti for $104m in 2010. That move clearly wasn’t simply to appease the aesthetic sensibilities of the bank’s board.

Cultural heritage, in particular, now has massive intrinsic value, a fact that has not been lost on art smugglers. Sadly, the Gulf is now emerging as a region that is being targeted by criminals aiming to sell off stolen works. After the Arab Spring, museums and archeological sites in Egypt and Syria were looted by thieves and the lack of a strong regulatory regime against this illegal business has made the Gulf an appealing market in which to sell those treasures.

Some Arab dictators patronised antiquities in order to pose as heirs of the royal traditions of the past and also to exercise control over western intellectuals who wished to study those works of art. Under Saddam Hussein’s regime, for example, selling antiquities was strictly prohibited in Iraq. Now, however, looters are roaming freely across Iraq, overwhelming the few remaining antiquities guards, and selling the material in the Gulf and in Europe. For regular Egyptians, Iraqis, Libyans and perhaps Syrians, the fall of these regimes has created an opportunity to strike back at hated symbols and to make some good money in a period in which traditional forms of business have suffered.

Sometimes smugglers are more interested in getting rid of stolen works, deciding to sell them for a relatively cheap price to private collectors. This is the reason why many argue that art collectors with no ethical sense of collecting are the real looters, encouraging the development of this illegal market. Another shortcut that art thieves often try is to go through renowned auction houses hoping to find an easier way of selling the item.

Over 300,000 objects are registered on the database of The Art Loss Register. This database helps auction houses to detect these looted works of art and prevent the illegal trade. In this sense, even if the recovery rate is in terms of hundreds and not thousands each year, the deterrent is high.

Pictures and paintings are the main target for art thieves and only about 15 percent are antiquities. Around 20 percent of the stolen items easily get destroyed and most of them are sold for a low value in the black market. “There is a market for looted art in the Gulf because there is less attention and regulations in the emirates, but rulers are making their efforts to limit this phenomenon,” says Julian Radcliffe, chairman of The Art Loss Register.

In Radcliffe’s opinion, the GCC countries should improve customs barriers. In most western countries you are asked to provide valid documentation when carrying works of art. However, this is not the case in the Gulf. Smugglers can easily enter any GCC country carrying items stolen from museums in Egypt and Syria without being asked any tough questions. Signing the UNESCO convention would be another important step for the region, according to Radcliffe. It’s also fundamental to change the laws in order to ban the trade of stolen works of art and making it illegal for museums in the Gulf to buy looted art.

When the business and the appetite for art start growing, regulations and initiatives to protect and encourage the development of a rich art scene quickly become a necessity, rather than a luxury.

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