Quality up but sales patchy at Art Dubai’s third edition

DUBAI. The third edition of Art Dubai, which threw open its doors on 17 March in the upscale resort of Madinat Jumeirah, brought together 68 dealers hopeful that the Gulf would prove a fertile ground for sales amid the global financial meltdown.

While reports of Dubai in the western press sometimes depict a ghost town, the glitzy, well-attended opening night defied this caricature. Nevertheless, the tiny emirate is not immune to the recession, particularly given its dependence on real estate and its exposure to debt.

The fair was slightly smaller than last year, with a few last-minute drop-outs, and the organisers had discounted some stands. Some of the newcomers were of very high calibre, including London’s Lisson Gallery and Gimpel Fils and New York’s L & M Arts, which had skipped Maastricht’s Tefaf fair to do Dubai. Exhibitors had made efforts to bring quality works and it was generally agreed that the level of the fair was distinctly higher than in the first two years.

Visitors also praised the quality of the build and the clean, contemporary look of the fair, which successfully disguised the excesses of gilding and crystal of the exhibition halls.

The fair attracted many leading art world personalities, including Indian collector Anupam Poddar, Swiss collector Maja Hoffmann, Tate supremo Sir Nicholas Serota, auctioneer Simon de Pury and New Museum chief curator Richard Flood. In total 80 museum groups attended, with a contingent of 18 patrons and curators from Tate alone. They were fully occupied rushing between a packed programme of talks, forums and performances organised as part of a Global Art Forum. One stop was at the newly opened Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, and the group also visited nearby Sharjah, which had moved its biennial dates to coincide with the fair.

This year, dealers focused far more strongly than in the two past editions on regional artists. The fair has matured to become the leading commercial event in the Menasa (Middle East, North Africa and South Asia) area. Even the western galleries ensured that they had something locally relevant on offer. Newcomer Edwynn Houk sold works by the Moroccan photographer Lalla Essaydi depicting veiled women, while Goff + Rosenthal was showing large-scale, semi-abstract works by the Iraqi-born painter Ahmed Alsoudani, a Saatchi favourite.

Other dealers definitely had an eye on future buying by the slew of new museums being planned for the Gulf: L & M was showing an exceptional group of Sam Francis works on paper priced at $12m, which the gallery hoped would find an institutional home. Lisson was showing a faceted Anish Kapoor sculpture priced at £875,000 and reported strong interest.

Local galleries with strong regional collector bases, as well as some of the international galleries actively courting the local market, sold well. Robert Goff parted with all the Alsoudani works at prices between $18,000 and $65,000. “My goal was to place works in local collections, and I mainly succeeded,” he said, naming Kuwait, Dubai and the Lebanon as destinations. Several other galleries such as Almine Rech and Michael Schultz reported good sales, while a member of the Dubai royal family bought Ming Yue Wang’s Two Young Women, 2007, for about $60,000 from Galerie Thomas.

Corporate interest came from Abraaj Capital, a Dubai-based equity firm that has founded a $600,000 prize for artists from the Menasa region, and was also seen to buy at the fair. In an increased sign of royal support, the award ceremony on the opening night was attended by Dubai’s deputy ruler Sheikh Maktoum and his brother Sheikh Majed. Members of Abu Dhabi’s ruling family also visited the fair.

However, for a few dealers, business was slow. “Everyone’s looking for a cash cow, but there are no cash cows any more,” said Paola Weiss of Bischoff/Weiss. She nevertheless sold a work by Olivier Millagou, Palmitos, 2009, for £10,000 to a local collector. Shortly before closing, a Dubai businessman swept around the fair and reserved 40 works.

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