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Sun 4 Mar 2007 12:00 AM

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An artful trade

Ahead of the inaugural Gulf Art Fair, we look at how investing in art is becoming more and more popular in the Middle East.

Many hold the opinion that the Gulf art scene is insignificant, but they are misinformed. Art has been thriving in the GCC for years, the problem has been that its appreciation on a wider scale has until now been ignored. It is only in the last few months that the Middle East art market has experienced a dramatic upturn in fortunes, with a host of new galleries and public exhibitions being announced on an almost weekly basis, and unprecedented volumes of canvasses passing between local and international hands for tens of millions of dollars.

The taste for regional art and culture is growing quicker than ever before, and Dubai is at the epicentre of this growth. This is not to say, however, that these events are only being staged by those working in regional arts - some of the biggest names in the cultural world are rapidly realising that art as a business is rapidly expanding in the Middle East, and that they want to be at the heart of its investment potential.

In February 2007, the DIFC announced that it had acquired a 50% stake in the forthcoming inaugural Gulf Art Fair, which it plans to develop into a major annual event that will become a significant platform for international contemporary art. The DIFC Gulf Art Fair aims to become one of the top five global contemporary art fairs within three years, and will help to establish Dubai as the most important centre for art commerce for Asia, a market which it believes has the potential to rival London and New York within a decade.

Last year saw the world-famous 250-year old auction house Christie’s host its first-ever international modern and contemporary art auction in the Middle East. The auction achieved sales of US$8.5m and as a result, Christie’s announced an expanded set of sales in January of this year. Last month saw the auction house host a second international modern and contemporary art auction, as well as its first auction of contemporary jewellery and watches raising a staggering US$21m. With revenues like these it is unsurprisingly planning more sales in the near future.

The piece of art which fetched the highest bid, ‘Woman and Horses’ by Indian artist Maqbool Fida Husain, went under the hammer for more than US$440,000, more than twice the estimate.

“The Middle East isn’t new to Christie’s in the sense that we’ve had a base of clients here for many years who purchase in our sales internationally,” says Michael Jeha, managing director of Christie’s Dubai. “So we’ve regularly been travelling to the Middle East.”

It was only in March 2005, however, that Christie’s decided to open a representative office in Dubai in order to offer a better service for its regional clients by providing them with a gateway to its international art network. “In that short space of time, the demand, enthusiasm and appetite for art has risen so much that things have moved very quickly and transformed into what we have today - holding both exhibitions and sales,” Jeha adds.

Aside from the regional appetite for art and culture, Jeha believes there is a growing hunger for the industry to succeed. “It’s almost as if the government have said ‘right, we’ve invested so much now in construction, tourism, hotels - let’s now focus on culture’, and there has been a noticeable increase in the drive towards culture in the last 12 months.”

Consequently, Christie’s is hoping to build a major presence in Dubai that Jeha enthusiastically says will serve as the central hub in the Middle East, “We have our eye on the entire region, and over the next 18 months we’ll be looking to hold exhibitions and do educational seminars in countries outside the UAE.”

In order to refine its regional focus, Christie’s is also looking into expanding its opportunities in Saudi Arabia: “We’re fully aware that Saudi is a highly important market but it’s harder to penetrate for a number of reasons. In particular, bringing the artwork and antiques into Saudi can be more problematic because there are tougher rules and regulations — it can be done and it will be done — but it takes a lot more careful planning.” Outside of the KSA, Christie’s is also keen to establish more of a presence in Kuwait and Qatar, which Jeha explains were “highlights” on Christie’s recent GCC media tour. “Qatar and Kuwait have a long tradition of collecting art, particularly among the ruling classes. In fact, the ruling classes of those countries have been clients for many years and many purchase in Christie’s sales internationally.”

As an auction house selling high-end works, Christie’s has two education-based battles on its hands in the Middle East: “The first battle is educating people about the art itself and we also have a battle to educate people about Christie’s and what the auction process entails.”

“Bringing the artwork and antiques into Saudi can be more problematic because there are tougher rules and regulations — it can be done and it will be done — but it takes a lot more careful planning.”

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Arun Sarin 13 years ago

This is a paid event and many talented individuals who are potential contributors may not be motivated to attend...