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Fri 27 Nov 2009 04:00 AM

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The art of investment

Art collector Yoyo Meaght reveals why the UAE capital could become one of the market’s largest players.

The art of investment
Yoyo Maeght of the Maeght Gallery and Maeght Foundation.
The art of investment
Joan Miró’s ‘Joy of a Girl in Front of the Sun’ was the centrepiece of the Abu Dhabi collection.
The art of investment
L’oustachi’ by the Spanish artist Joan Miró.
The art of investment
Paris’ Louvre museum will have its first permanent outpost in Abu Dhabi. The museum building is being designed by French architect Jean Nouvel.

The downturn may have hurt the art world, but that hasn’t deterred Abu Dhabi. Yoyo Meaght, part of one of Europe’s largest art-collecting dynasties, reveals why art is holding its value and why the UAE capital could become one of the market’s largest players.When recessions bite, art and real estate are usually the assets of choice for investors fleeing the turmoil of the markets. As solid asset classes, they are a welcome antidote to the complexity of hedge funds and trading tools.

But neither property nor art has proved immune to the current global crisis. In parts of the UAE, real estate prices have halved, while art investors, wary of a second crash, have kept their hands in their pockets. Still, if she were a betting woman Yoyo Maeght of the Maeght Gallery and Maeght Foundation, France, says she would put her money on the art industry bouncing back first.

“It is interesting as when there is a crisis, historically before and after the crisis art is always higher,” says Maeght. We are sitting in Emirates Palace, where Maeght is attending the Abu Dhabi Art Fair. “Real estate; you can have the price lower after the crisis… [but] in art, after the crisis it is higher. The prices end up higher than before. Always.”

During the boom years, both property and art prices soared to unrealistic levels and Mehreen Rizvi-Khursheed, head of the Modern and Contemporary South Asian and Middle Eastern Art department at Bonhams, believes both were due a necessary correction.

Bonhams, the London-based dealers founded in 1793, is one of the world’s oldest and largest auctioneers of fine art and antiques. It entered the Middle Eastern market in March 2008 and its first auction saw a painting by Iranian artist Farhard Moshiri sell for $1.48m, three times the estimated selling price and a new record for the artist.

“We believe the lows were reached at the end of last year or beginning of this year,” says Rizvi-Khursheed. “There has been a huge impact across all sectors of the art market. However, it has been a good thing for the market and has brought it back to reality.

“A levelling-off has been achieved whereby auctions have returned to providing a means for private collectors and dealers to buy and sell works that are otherwise unavailable to the market,” adds Rizvi-Khursheed.

In October, Bonhams oversaw an auction in Dubai which sold close to 70 percent of lots and earned total sales of more than $1.8m.

“I am very encouraged by the turnout at the sale which indicated return in confidence in the art market,” says Mathew Girling, chief executive of Bonhams for the UK, Europe and Middle Eastern region “The region has seemingly weathered the downturn in the economic market and collectors were notably enthusiastic. I am optimistic that in 2010 we will see the Dubai art market firmly back on the road to recovery.”

Hoping to benefit from this upsurge in interest, Maeght exhibited recently at the Abu Dhabi Art Fair. The Maeght family is one of the biggest art dealers in Europe and specialises in the work of Barcelona-born surrealist painter, sculptor, and ceramist Joan Miró.Miró exhibited his works in the Maeght Gallery from 1947 until his death in 1983. Over the years, the Maeght family has collected what is considered one of the most prestigious collections by the Spanish artist.

The centerpiece of the collection shown in Abu Dhabi is a piece entitled ‘Joy of a Girl in Front of the Sun’. Maeght, however, is in no hurry to part with it.

“If I sell it I will be very happy as I can use the money to support new exhibitions and artists. If I don’t sell it I am not sad as I know the price will only go higher and higher, especially as Miró is so recognised worldwide,” she says.

Leaving aside the monetary value, Maeght says she puts equal stock in the artistic worth of the piece.

“When Miró painted ‘Joy of a Girl in Front of the Sun’ nobody had gone on the moon. Before Apollo went to the moon, except for a few Russian men, we did not know the colour of the cosmos. So he imagined the cosmos and he was right. Artists like that have a vision of the future,” she explains.

Abu Dhabi certainly knows the value of art. Unlike its glitzy neighbour Dubai, it has favoured high-brow cultural attractions over more commercial brands.

In March 2007, it was announced that Paris’ Louvre museum would have its first permanent outpost in Abu Dhabi. The 24,000 sq m museum building, which is being designed by French architect Jean Nouvel, is currently under construction and is due to be completed in 2012.

As part of the 30-year deal, reportedly worth around $1.3bn, the French museum will rotate between 200 and 300 artworks during a ten-year period, hosting works from the Louvre, the Georges Pompidou Centre, the Musée d’Orsay and Versailles.

The deal sparked controversy among France’s artistic community as many believed the Louvre was acting like a corporation and being driven by profit. A petition was signed by thousands of French museum experts, archaeologists and art historians who insisted that “museums are not for sale”.

Maeght, however, believes the agreement will serve to benefit both countries.

“I am very happy. I think it is really magic for a country like this one,” she says. “We introduce you to the art of our country and European art, not to teach you but to open your eyes very wide.

“Art history is very long and very slow and always continuing. To continue to tomorrow you have to know it yesterday.”Worldwide, the recession has forced a shift in the art industry, says Bonhams’ Rizvi-Khursheed, in favour of smaller, independent buyers.

“Fine art and antique auctions are attracting less commercial buyers and more art collectors who see the current estimates at auctions [as] more economically accessible than over the past few years,” he says.

“Bonhams sees the profile of buyers moving towards individuals who are keen art enthusiasts, who wish to debate works, mix with like-minded individuals, learn about the traditional form of buying fine art at auction and wish to make an intelligent investment at the same time.”

“I see much more people here and more people are asking me for prices,” Maeght says in agreement.

The internet has also played a role in opening up the art world. Gallery collections are available to view online, and art works can be purchased simply via the internet. Does Maeght worry that art might go the way of the music industry, where virtual purchases are preferred to albums?

“Everything in our life is immaterial,” she says. “You read newspapers on a website, you buy music on a website [or] you watch a film on a website. It means there is no materiality.

“When I was young when I was buying music I went to a music store and even if I knew what I was expecting to buy I looked at new records and music. It was for me entertainment even being in the shop. Today we have none of this. We need entertainment. We need art.

“I really think that is why art is becoming more and more important and why people are going more and more into museums,” she continues. “Something that makes them think. You can’t get that on a computer,” Maeght adds.

In September last year, British artist Damien Hurst broke with tradition and decided to sell his entire new collection through Sotheby’s. The publicity and exposure saw the auction raise nearly $200m in sales, despite the recession, and Hurst is now reputed to be the richest living artist.

Other controversial artists of the modern age, such as Tracey Emin and recent winners of the Turner Prize have shown how modern marketing and controversy can turn artists into celebrities and raise the value of their work.

However, this isn’t an invention of the current generation and it’s nothing new, Maeght points out. “Picasso was controversial, Dali was controversial. That is not new. We think it’s new but it’s not.”Of course, all artists need patrons, Hurst had Charles Saatchi and Michelangelo had the Medici family. Back in Paris, the Maeght family set up the Maeght Foundation, which helps to nurture new talent and the emerging artists of the future.

Maeght believes that the UAE government and authorities are also keen to encourage the artistic community in the country.

The confidence is reciprocated, as Maeght reports that she only attends three international art fairs: New York, Shanghai and now Abu Dhabi.

“The government and royal family, they both know it was a big effort to come here Emiratis understand we’ve made an effort.”

Maeght is planning a Miró exhibition in Abu Dhabi within the next year, to showcase a number of private works from the Maeght collections.

“I was here last year and I came back this year even though last year I sold nothing.

I think they will support us, they have to,” she explains.

Getting back to the bottom dollar, I ask Maeght for her top tip for picking a painting that will also give a good return.

“When you buy a piece it is because you like it, but also as an investment,” she explains. “I have a motto; is the artist 20 years early or is the public 20 years late?”

“I see many exhibitions. I can buy a piece before you even know the artist, but then once the price gets higher, my best pleasure is to know I made a good choice, I believed in this artist.

The Abu Dhabi art scene may be in its adolescence, but the emirate has ambitious plans to become a magnet for art lovers. With the support of high profile European art dealers, and the completion of projects such as the Louvre Abu Dhabi, it can look forward to a fruitful future.

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