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Collectors buy for love, but Arab art is big business too

The Modern and Contemporary Art of the Arab World exhibition at Christie's in London. Its annual sale of Middle Eastern art is in early November Christie's
Arab art on display at Christie's in London. Its annual sale of Middle Eastern art is in November
  • Global interest in Middle Eastern art soaring
  • Christie’s 2022 auction of Arab works made $3m
  • Collectors ‘becoming more adventurous’

One of the first things that strikes you about the modern and contemporary Arab art on display at Christie’s gallery in central London is its variety. 

Cubist pieces from Baghdad hang alongside figurative Egyptian paintings, saffron-coloured tapestries next to abstract ink-on-paper drawings.  

Dreams of the Detainee, a portrait in profile from 1961 by Cairo-born activist Inji Efflatoun, is a small oil painting that evokes ancient wall art. It feels a world away from the swimming tempera colours of Head, an 8-foot-wide canvas completed by Syrian artist Marwan in the mid-1970s, which dominates the exhibition space. 

Drawn from the vaults of the UAE’s Barjeel Art Foundation, the Kawkaba – or “constellation” – show is designed to introduce notable Arab artists to the general public while also whetting collectors’ appetite for later auctions. 

In a separate part of the gallery is a display of contemporary works by UAE artists, some of which are offered for private sale. The stars of this show (Emirati Art Reimagined) are shredded fabric hangings by the conceptual artist Hassan Sharif.

“The interest from clients has been fantastic,” says Meagan Kelly Horsman, managing director of Christie’s Middle East. With Sharif’s work, “clients are engaging with the large-scale installation rope works as well as the more academically focused early paintings”. 

Arab art: Dreams of the Detainee by Inji EfflatounChristie's
Dreams of the Detainee, a 1961 portrait by the Cairo-born artist and activist Inji Efflatoun

Ever since it organised Dubai’s first art auction in 2006, Christie’s has witnessed a huge increase in the global appeal of modern Arab, Turkish and Iranian artists. The auction house expects keen interest from buyers at its annual sale of Middle Eastern modern and contemporary art, which takes place in early November.

“I do believe interest in this category has increased and has steadily done so for a few decades consistently,” says Kelly Horsman. “I feel the market will certainly continue to grow, as we see historic clients and new clients bidding alongside each other.”

While many collectors buy for love, art is also big business. Global art and antiquities sales rose to $67.8 billion in 2022, above pre-pandemic levels. China is now the third largest art market in the world after the US and the UK, according to the Art Basel and UBS Art Market Report.

There are no firm figures for the Middle East, as the data reflects points of sale such as New York or London, but dealers say many big-ticket purchases in these cities are made by private collectors from the Arab world, including diaspora communities. 

This includes the most expensive painting ever sold at public auction: Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi. The work went for $450 million at a 2017 sale in Manhattan – and it later transpired the buyer was an intermediary for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Old Masters dominate the sales rankings, but the growing appetite for modern and contemporary Arab art is pushing their prices ever higher. A depiction of Adam and Eve by Mahmoud Said (1897-1964), the father of Egyptian modernism, sold for $520,000 in 2018 at Sotheby’s. Three of his works have sold for more than $1 million. Other Egyptian artists such as Efflatoun and the surrealist Fouad Kamel (1919-73) frequently fetch five or six-figure sums. 

Arab art: Head by MarwanChristie's
Head, an 8-foot-wide canvas by Syrian artist Marwan from the mid-1970s

Interest in modern art bloomed in the Gulf during the heated economic growth of the mid-2000s, when deals were struck with the Guggenheim and Louvre museums to build outposts in Abu Dhabi. Homegrown collections such as Qatar’s Mathaf museum of modern Arab art also opened to the public. 

Christie’s became the first major auction house to establish a sales office in Dubai in 2005, with Bonhams following suit in 2007. Sotheby’s opened its own regional outpost a year later in Doha. 

Local sales of Arab art have gathered pace ever since, proving relatively resilient to turbulent periods in the wider economy. The Christie’s auction of modern and contemporary Middle Eastern art netted $3 million last year. Paintings by Said, Lebanese-American Etel Adnan, Tehran-born Ali Banisadr and Palestinian artist Samia Halaby all made six figures.

The taste for contemporary art varies, says Kelly Horsman. “A contemporary exhibition may appeal more to emerging collectors, who tend to be based in global cities like Dubai, New York, London, whereas a more [traditional] academic-focused sale may appeal to clients based elsewhere, such as in Beirut, Paris, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh.”

Curators say any reluctance to embrace the avant-garde tends to dissipate as audiences broaden their horizons. And art lovers certainly seem keen to do so.

The Louvre Abu Dhabi has welcomed up to 1 million visitors a year since it was inaugurated in late 2017, while the neighbouring Guggenheim predicts similar footfall when it officially opens its doors in two years. 

These giants join well-established institutions such as Mathaf and the Sursock in Beirut, as well as a constellation of smaller galleries across the Middle East. 

“As the documentation and research of the art and artists of the region grows, I see buyers becoming more adventurous and excited by works on offer,” says Kelly Horsman. “Art is a fairly unique investment category, with a majority of collectors purchasing for love.”

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