By Ashkan Baghestani
Value remains extremely affordable in the region compared to western markets, and increased funding means the future looks bright for Middle East artists
The Middle East has a long and storied heritage of great art, particularly 20th Century Arab and Iranian Art. And collectors are finally appreciating that it is not just a by-product of yesterday, but a point of convergence between European movements both then and now.
Demand for art from the Modernism period is particularly increasing, as Sotheby’s has seen the category grow from strength to strength, witnessing benchmarks being set with every season.
We believe the growth reflects the natural progression that many art collectors make from collecting Contemporary art to developing an appreciation for Modern pieces created by pioneers who led the way for today’s Contemporary artists.
This evolution in interest, appreciation and the corresponding expansion of the collector base for works has been spurred by the plethora of international exhibitions of regional artists.
My top picks include the Guggenheim exhibition featuring the works of Iranian artist Monir Farmanfarmaian, the Egyptian Surrealism display at the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the first solo show by Saudi Abdulnasser Gharem at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
I would also recommend the Tate Modern in London’s first major retrospective of Turkish-born artist Fahrelnissa Zeid, or the Yinchuan Museum of Contemporary Art in China, is showcasing works by Egyptian artist Wael Shawky.
Furthermore, institutional support in the region has helped promote a wider understanding and appeal of these works, including the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, along with the diaspora in Dubai. Two dates in my diary are the Istanbul Biennial and the opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi in November.
I particularly enjoy the distinct backgrounds and identities of each art scene across the region. While Dubai has become an important hub promoting the Middle Eastern art scene, various individual markets, whether Beirut, Abu Dhabi, Jeddah or Cairo, are fascinating in their own right; and evolving rapidly.
For me, the Contemporary scene for Saudi artists in particular is very intellectual and interesting, reflecting a thirst for understanding of their culture and history. This can be seen in the growing market for artworks by GCC artists, which is no doubt complemented by the increasing support from institutions such as The King Abdulaziz Centre for World Culture and LACMA, which houses the largest collection of contemporary Middle Eastern art of any museum in the US.
One of my favourite cities to visit and experience the lively art and design scene is Tehran, which has been blossoming at an unstoppable pace over the last few years, with local institutions continually striving to provide a unique platform for a new generation of young visual artists and creatives.
At Sotheby’s, our Contemporary Arab, Iranian and Turkish art is always a curated offering. The auction world is seen as a barometer for the art market as a whole, and from the results of our major sales so far this year, it’s evident the market is strong. If one takes a look at leading artists such as Farmanfarmaian, Zeid and Bahman Mohasses or Contemporary figures such as Kader Attia and Walid Raad, the value of their works has all appreciated significantly in the last 20 years. In 2003, you would have been able to acquire a piece by Farmanfarmaian for around $5,000, but today, it would be tricky to find anything below $250,000.
Our 20th Century/Middle East sale in London this October will no doubt reflect this trajectory, featuring sought-after works by celebrated artists from the region, including an accomplished abstract still-life by Manoucher Yektai and Farmanfarmaian’s mesmerising mirror-mosaic disco ball.
When talking about investing in art, we would always advise that wanting to own the work and enjoying it is the primary driver. It is important to be guided by your passion. That said, there are many examples of informed decisions leading to an increase in value of the artwork.
The time is right for investing in Middle Eastern art, as the value remains extremely affordable in comparison to other Western markets. With museums all acquiring more Middle Eastern artists, and taking on board MENA curators, the future looks bright for increased funding and emphasis on artists from the region.