Western dealers push for trade sanctions against Iran to be repealed

Galleries and artists see improvement after temporary relaxations were implemented to discourage nuclear proliferation


Western art dealers are calling for trade sanctions against Iran to be lifted, as a temporary deal to curb the country’s nuclear ambitions has highlighted the red tape that has been hampering its art market, as well as its economy. In November, a six-month easing of sanctions was agreed internationally after Iran agreed to stop its uranium enrichment.

Leila Heller, whose gallery in New York specialises in Middle Eastern and Iranian contemporary art, sees the easing of sanctions as “opening doors for cultural diplomacy, more art exhibitions, more trade of art and other things”. She says that the economic sanctions that have been maintained by the US since the 1980s and by the United Nations since 2006 have made it difficult to get art out of Iran and to pay artists for sales of their work.

Backlog of art

“Removing the sanctions [completely] would be fantastic for the arts,” Heller says. “It is hard for artists to get visas to travel to the West. It is difficult to arrange financial transactions: there is a backlog of artists and art awaiting the lifting of the sanctions.”

Contemporary work by Middle Eastern artists is an area of growing interest for collectors and museums around the world, and many of the region’s noted artists are from Iran. These include Shirin Neshat (born 1957), Golnaz Fathi (born 1972) and Farhad Ahrarina (born 1971). A few of the Iranian artists whose works have been shown in the West have dual citizenship or are expatriates, not least—in Neshat’s case in particular—because of the political nature of their work. Two of Heller’s artists, Shoja Azari (born 1958) and Hadieh Shafie (born 1969), are Iranian-born artists who now live in the US.

The agreement reached by a group of six nations (the UK, France, Germany, Russia, China and the US) with Iran on 24 November does not address the art market directly, but Heller and other Western dealers of Iranian art see it as a step in the right direction. The modifications relax a handful of rules governing, for example, the export of petrochemical products and the trading of gold and precious metals. They increase tenfold the thresholds for authorising financial transfers to and from the country. Many sanctions, however, remain in force.

Dealers in New York and London say the trade sanctions have meant that artists and dealers have had to find loopholes to survive. They say that it is not difficult to get works out of Iran, because it is possible to operate through other countries, including the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and Cyprus. Both Heller and Issa note that Dubai has been particularly helpful to the trade in Iranian art, since the emirate is near Iran and has not placed any embargoes on Iranian goods or services (nor are there any US sanctions against the United Arab Emirates). The UAE also hosts two international art fairs—Art Dubai (19-22 March) and Abu Dhabi Art (this year’s dates are yet to be announced)—that bring the work of artists living in Iran out of the country for a more international clientele to buy.

Rosa Issa, a London-based dealer of Middle Eastern art, says that there are still problems. “The issue is how to pay the artists,” she says.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Western dealers push for easier trade with Iran'