Egyptian art fetches record auction price at Christie s
For a while it looked as if the Middle East had found a place on the international art map as a venue for the sale and production of works of aesthetic importance. Admittedly, the purchasing took place in the Gulf while the creative process took place elsewhere in the region, but at last the market was coming alive.
That was in May 2006, and since then it has become clear that the Middle East has collectors. Enthusiasm for its artistic creators, however, has not taken off to the same extent.
Christie s, who staged the stunningly successful art auction in Dubai, has more events planned. The jewelry sale in November 2006 took the market back to the field for which the region is famous. More art will be happening next year, and at least some of it will have its origins in the Middle East.
The results may be as spectacular as the previous auction, but what is certain is that the rest of the world is less passionate in its pursuit of artists with a Middle Eastern background.
There can be little doubt that art goes where the money is. The latest evidence of this is the massive rise in prices for contemporary works from China and India. Chinese buyers are grabbing everything in sight, and now that older objects have become so expensive, they are settling for something more modern.
For Indian collectors, the appeal of the contemporary has been around for longer and the buyers are more widely distributed throughout the Indian diaspora. In May 2006, the record-breaking action moved further west.
For the first time, international attention was focused on Middle Eastern art. Christie s foray into Dubai saw estimates demolished in the same manner that has become so common with Chinese and Indian art. In fact, the most successful lots were Indian art, but there was still plenty of attention given to Arab artists. The sale would not have been possible without the subcontinent s commercial success.
The Indian art renaissance has been nearly as impressive as China s, although prices remain lower. An indication of how huge the market has become was the single-artist sale of works by Francis Newton Souza at Bonhams auction house in London, the first occasion an Indian artist has had this distinction.
Souza is by no means the only Indian artist to be making an impression at the moment, and, like the rest of the top league, the impression is being made in more places than ever. London and India lead the auction locations, although New York and Hong Kong are serious contenders and Dubai has now entered the field. At a different Bonhams sale, which started off this year s Indian season , were a number of works from Pakistan. India s Muslim neighbor, Pakistan, receives negligible attention, which might be because so much of its output is unlikely to please that nation s citizens.
Paintings by the prominent Pakistani artists Jamil Naqsh and Sadequain take eroticism to a level that is not found even in Indian miniatures of past centuries. This is especially surprising in the case of Sadequain as he came from a family of distinguished Qur an scribes. During his lifetime, there were violent protests against his works.
Being unpalatable to most of their compatriots has not helped the pricing of Jamil Naqsh s and Sadequain s more explicit works. While many other artists were doubling their estimates, these two were not. Unspectacular results showed how important it is to have a local following if you are going to prosper.
Better still, the following should be in a rich country. So far, Pakistan has failed to match the economic miracle of India or parts of the Arab world. However, the magic of Christie s Dubai sale worked for these two artists, both of whom did considerably better than they had in London.
Their success in the Gulf was doubtless because the subject matter of their chosen works was rather less contentious, consisting mostly of harmless-looking doves or scenes with political rather than sexual content.
Astonishing things happened with almost all the estimates at Christie s first experiment in the Middle Eastern market. The interest generated in its sale of international modern and contemporary art was phenomenal. The location had to be the world s most lavish hotel, the Jumeirah Emirates Towers Hotel, in the hottest economic zone of the moment – the Arabian Gulf. Concessions were made to ensure that the region s richest and most royal art lovers were able to keep a low profile.
The media were kept well away from those most averse to publicity, not that the Gulf has ever been a paparazzi paradise.
To view a selection of the paintings exhibited at Christie s, please click here Other regional sensitivities were also taken into account by Christie s. All the trappings of cosmopolitanism were there, tempered by plenty of conservatism. There was, of course, the absence of works with erotic content. Most of the artists from the Middle East were Muslim, with a sprinkling of Christian Armenians and Lebanese. Jewish artists were conspicuously absent. The number of Muslim artists could almost have had this sale classified as the first international auction of Islamic art, and some of it was truly Islamic in nature.
However, to have called it such would have been impossible with the considerable input of non-Muslim artists – not that this stops auction houses using the term Islamic art for older items whose connection with Islam is very tenuous indeed. Still, it was a milestone to see so much from the Islamic world in a single sale.
Among the most unquestionably Islamic works was Hussein Madi s Untitled, which included the Shahada and the word Allah. Even more successful were Ahmed Moustafa s works. Making innovative use of Arabic calligraphy, one of his paintings almost tripled its estimate to fetch just under US$300,000. This was a record for the UK-based artist from Egypt, and could well be a record for any work with such overtly Islamic content.
In addition to the expected Arab artists, the sale also featured some less-anticipated Iranians. The most prominent were two women with strong political views. Shirin Neshat and Shadi Ghadiran were among the only representatives of the photographic medium from the Muslim world. Photography has been the most successful art field of the past 20 years, although it did not feature prominently at this sale, nor has it taken the Middle East by storm in the way that it has America and Europe.
The examples of their work at this sale did not shy away from the big issues that these two Iranians explore. Where their lots started with low estimates, such as a Shirin Neshat photographs at US$3,500 – US$4,500, the price ended up close to $50,000. Shadi also managed to triple her estimates, although this brought them up to a comparatively modest US$13,200.
It was clear that those present were determined to make a statement with this sale. The confidence associated with the Gulf was in evidence all around. More than 50 percent of the buyers were from the Middle East. Europe and America came next, – and many of these collectors were Middle Eastern expatriates living outside the region. Just about everything sold above its estimate, usually double that. The highest price of the evening went to the Indian artist Rameshwar Broota, who fetched more than US$900,000 for a painting with a low estimate of $80,000.
The second highest price went to Syed Haider Raza, whose exploration of the circle as a spiritual metaphor makes a striking contrast with Ahmed Moustafa s interest in cubes. The artist with the greatest number of works in the top ten list at Christie s was Maqbool Fida Hussain. Still working and traveling at 91 years of age, he keeps a physical link with Dubai by owning a home there.
It is clear that Indian art is still doing well, wherever sold. Tyeb Mehta and Francis Newton Souza made new records last September, both in New York. The Muslim artists who did so well in Dubai have failed to shine, however. It is always hard to compare art prices; photographs are the e
asiest medium for comparison.
Whoever paid US$50,000 for Shirin Neshat s I Am Its Secret is no doubt secretly wishing he had made his purchase somewhere else. In October 2006, two identical versions of the same print – same year and size – were sold in London and New York. One went for £7,200 (approx. US$13,580) and the other for US$5,400. Both are far below the $50,000 paid in Dubai.
The magic of Muslim artists seems to work best in the Middle East.
Lucien de Guise is the head of publications and acting head curator of the Islamic Arts Museum in Malaysia. He has a master s in Islamic Art and History from Oxford University. This article previously appeared on Islamonline.net. It is reprinted with permission.