State of the Art: Middle Eastern Art at Auction

BY Harper's Bazaar Art / Oct 11 2015 / 18:17 PM

A survey of the latest auctions of Middle Eastern art reveal the region's highs and lows and ultimately, the desire to cement its art history. Sarah Hassan reports

State of the Art: Middle Eastern Art at Auction
State of the Art: Middle Eastern Art at Auction
State of the Art: Middle Eastern Art at Auction
State of the Art: Middle Eastern Art at Auction
State of the Art: Middle Eastern Art at Auction
State of the Art: Middle Eastern Art at Auction
State of the Art: Middle Eastern Art at Auction

When the Arab Spring erupted at the end of 2010 in Tunisia and began its outward seismic journey to neighboring countries in the already troubled region, it wasn't merely politics as usual that took the proverbial nosedive. While the world watched wave after wave of public protests, violent demonstrations, the toppling of decades-long rulers and the bloody aftermath therein, the art world suffered a commercial blow in a category that had been steadily on the rise. Middle Eastern Art – from 19th century Orientalist masterpieces to contemporary works from the MENASA region – had started to command serious numbers on the global art market stage.

Beginning in 2006 with the inception of Christie's salesroom in Dubai and subsequent auction – the first ever of International Modern and Contemporary Art in the Middle East - Sotheby's followed suit by selling in Doha in 2009 after opening it's Qatari offices and salesroom in 2008. Thanks to a flush of wealth backed by strong prices of oil and gas in the region coupled with the meteoric interest for not only the fresh and new but academic and antiquated, auction houses saw themselves at a powerful advantage to reintroduce the Middle East and Gulf States to romantic visions of the Orient à la Gerome, Deutsch, Dinet and Bridgman and provide a platform for nationals to snap up works by their own and amass impressive personal collections. In 2010, all that promise came to a standstill; the markets somberly played to the tune of revolution and buyers turned their attention to matters more pressing and grave. Orientalist art, appropriately, fell out of fashion, and artists once occupied with producing new works were now more concerned with the state of their nations.

Subsequent years have seen the region scale new heights in the market and reclaim the spark of commerce and collecting, thanks in no small part to the auction houses that first made waves and the rapid growth of local art fairs, such as the monumental Gulf State cornerstone, Art Dubai and the dealers and galleries who champion it. Despite disastrous percentages and tepid results through 2012, Christie's has gone on to sell over $200 million worth of art in the Emirates and Sotheby's made history in 2013 when it achieved the highest result for a Contemporary Art auction in the Middle East – over $15 million – and sold Icons of the Nile by Egypt-born Chant Avedissian for $1,565,000, breaking the record for a living Arab artist. Politics aside, the internet has commanded a serious trend for international collectors and ex-patriots to buy across time zones and nation-states, acquiring blue-chip pieces by promising new artists as a means to showcase the best of their cultural heritage abroad. Beginning with the welcome upswing in 2013 that propelled the market into late 2014, Contemporary Middle Eastern Art has been firmly placed once again in the spotlight as a favorite genre for new and seasoned collectors alike. Parallel buying opportunities for important pieces of Islamic and Orientalist Art – such as The Palace Guard by Ludwig Deutsch at Sotheby's London and a rare Kufic Qu'ran Folio on Blue Vellum at Christie's London both to hit the auction block during Islamic Art week in April – have breathed new life into these genres, allowing regional and ex-pat buyers to not only look to the future but be proud of their past.

Recent sale results and upcoming works at auction have solidified this trend for high-end acquisitions in the private and public sectors. Egypt, which turned attention away from the art market in 2011, is now home to some of the most successful Middle Eastern artists at auction. Christie's Dubai saw Abdul Hadi El-Gazzari's 'Construction of the Suez Canal' sell for $1,023,750 in March of 2014 and two works by Mahmoud Saïd take top honors in the following October sale, the starkly gorgeous cover lot Bergère à Alamein selling for $869,000 and Après la pluie, au Liban' for $701,000. Offering the best of contemporary art from both the east and west, Sotheby's Doha picked up the pace with its sale of 'Untitled, 2009' by the ever-popular Anish Kapoor for $1,595,000 in October 2014 – the highest price for the artist achieved in the Middle East – now attracting serious collectors on the heels of Art Dubai with their offerings for April of 2015 which includes works by Ahmed Matter, Farhad Moshiri, Chant Avedissian and Ali Banisadr – whose Black 3 (2009) practically tripled its low estimate at Christie's Dubai this past March selling for $339,750, a new record for the Iranian artist. Iranian art has long held a coveted spot at auction with interest in the region showing no signs of stopping thanks to current and upcoming stateside retrospectives of work by Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian – on view at the Guggenheim, New York – Parviz Tanavoli – on view at The Davis Museum at Wellesley College, Massachusettes – and Shirin Neshat – on view starting in May at The Hirshhorn in Washington, D.C.

Neighboring Iraq may finally receive its long overdue desserts thanks to Bonhams upcoming auction in London of 'A Century of Iraqi Art' as a part of its annual Modern and Contemporary Middle Eastern Art sale; one only has to encounter the seductively poetic Lamea portrait by the acclaimed artist Jewad Selim to believe in the power of art to elevate the spirit.

Few art markets are as sensitive to socio-economic crises as those of the Middle East and Arab world, from the constant flux in prices of the region's resources to the wide-spread political uncertainty and unrest. However, there appears to be no better time to collect than now. This is thanks to the generous interest of nationals reclaiming their heritage combined with the stalwart efforts of the auction houses who have held their ground in the Gulf and confident buyers abroad intrigued by the works emerging Phoenix-like from the region. The 2015 Armory Show in New York City had a 15-booth section focusing on Middle Eastern Art, which comes as no surprise when considering the almost decade-long journey that Modern and Contemporary Middle Eastern Art has undergone – book-ended by the academic offerings of Islamic and Orientalist Art.

May the current trends successfully dispel the doubt and disbelief of those who see only a part of the world that wishes to destroy its cultural offerings rather than protect and uphold the past, present and future masterworks that demand our attention and respect.