More than 500 bidders and spectators crowded into Christie’s inaugural sale in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on 24 May, for a mixed bag of 127 modern and contemporary works from the Middle East, India, Pakistan and the west. Before the sale, Jussi Pylkkänen, the president of Christie’s Europe and the Middle East, said it would be “fantastic” to reach the $5m sale estimate, but the final results almost doubled his expectations, with $8.5m in total sales.
The organisers had asked consignors to keep the work conservative in both subject and style for this first sale, but contemporary works, including photography, by emerging artists proved popular.
Indian contemporary art made $6m with eight new artists’ records set. A further 45 new price highs were recorded, mainly for Arab artists. The sale sold 87% by lot and 94% by value.
Ignoring its saleroom in Tel Aviv for marketing purposes, Christie’s billed this as the first art auction in the Middle East. To encourage the market for regional art, the auction house launched the sale with contemporary work rather than more popular jewellery.
The sale capitalised on Dubai’s current thirst for cultural events, alongside its real estate boom and status as a regional business hub. The sale took place in the Jumeirah Emirates Towers, one of Dubai’s opulent five-star hotels, and the crowd was a mix of Emirati dignitaries, and expatriate Arab, Iranian, Indian and European businesspeople and socialites, plus members of the local arts community.
Mr Pylkkänen said Dubai was a bold move for the auction house, given the untested nature of the market. The risk paid off: 63% of people registered to bid in the sale were new to Christie’s. One young buyer in his 20s, in Dubai for the weekend from Saudi Arabia and with no previous interest in art, told The Art Newspaper that he had come along on speculation “to see what an auction was like”. He later took home a $14,400 painting by Egyptian artist Mohammed Abla.
Dr Anwar Mohammed Gargash, recently appointed minister of state for Federal, National and Council Affairs in the UAE Cabinet, and well known locally as a collector of contemporary Middle Eastern art, started the sale off by paying treble the estimate for the opening lot, a work by Iraqi painter Shakir Hassan Al-Said. Dr Gargash went on to secure several other Arab works, most of which carried conservative estimates and sold for well over predictions.
Christie’s presence in Dubai could also attract new buyers to the buoyant Indian market. The top lot of the sale, Rameshwar Broota’s Numbers, 1979, the subject of furious bidding between Indian and western expatriates, eventually sold for $912,000 (est $80,000-$120,000), to an Indian UAE resident, a first-time bidder and buyer at auction.
Ramesh Goenka, an investor “working in the diamond business”, took four of the top ten lots, and spent around $2m during the evening. He saw off 13 bidders to buy Syed Haider Raza’s Ciel Bleu for $329,600 (est $100,000-$150,000). Raza’s Sourya was the second-highest selling lot of the evening at $520,000. Phone bidders from the US, both private and trade, secured works by F.N. Souza and M.F. Husain, again at over their estimates.
Some established Indian collectors had made the short flight to Dubai for the sale but, surprisingly, only 11% of the buyers were from the subcontinent. Buyers came from more than 17 countries, but private collectors based in the Middle East dominated, with 53% from the region and of these, 80% from the UAE.
Works from the 1980s by Lebanese painter Paul Guiragossian were particularly sought after. His Spring Festival made $64,800 (est $28,000-$35,000). Large calligraphic paintings by Egyptian Ahmed Moustafa also did exceptionally well. His Where Two Oceans Meet was the top Arab lot selling for $284,800 (est $100,000-$120,000). Chant Avedissian’s classic Icons of the Nile made $48,000 (est $22,000-$30,000). Shirin Neshat’s I Am Its Secret, from an edition of 250, went for $48,000, ten times its estimate.
Young Iranian artist Farhad Moshiri’s textured map of Iran, which Mr Pylkkänen had heavily promoted before the sale, was bought by a young UAE-based British expat for $48,000, four times its estimate. Compared with the animated Arab and Indian sales, bidding on a handful of Western works was slow, although Andy Warhol’s Double Mona Lisa made $192,000, just over its upper estimate.
It will take a few more auctions for this market to settle. Christie’s plans around two a year, with the next sale likely to be early next year.
o The writer is co-editor of Bidoun magazine (www.bidoun.com).