BEIRUT: There was a time, not so long ago, when the Middle East art market looked meager compared to emerging art markets in China, Russia, India and South America.
While a critical mass of artists and dynamic, non-profit organizations made intriguing islands of the independent art scenes in Beirut, Cairo, Alexandria and Amman, none of them seemed particularly viable as commercial enterprises capable of regional economic growth.
Not only was there no modern or contemporary art museum in Beirut to sift through decades of scattered cultural production and inchoate art history, the gallery system – which, in its current form, began taking root in the 1990s – was too sparse to act as an arbiter of taste, to say nothing of establishing value for work or getting an efficient market off the ground.
The upside of the Lebanese art scene’s institutional and infrastructural weaknesses was that a generation of conceptual mavericks was able to do its thing – and survive by teaching or other jobs – without any pressure to churn out commercial product, leading to ample experimentation in difficult media such as film, video, installation and performance.
At the same time, another generation of daring, foolish or genuinely philanthropic collectors was able to buy more traditional paintings by new and untested talents for a few thousand dollars apiece.
A clear sign that things have changed, and changed dramatically, was the sale of Ayman Baalbaki’s “Let a Thousand Flowers Bloom,” for a whopping $206,500 this April. An oil painting on floral upholstery fabric, adorned with glass, copper sheeting and a light box, the work was completed just months before it appeared on the auction block at Christie’s in Dubai. Baalbaki, moreover, at 36 years old, straddles the line between conceptual and commercial, and staged his first solo major exhibition, at the Agial Art Gallery, in 2006. What happened?
Five years ago, when the international auction house Christie’s made the audacious and bewildering decision to set up an office, establish a sales room and hold regular auctions in Dubai, its initial offerings of Arab art were padded by Indian and Iranian works that often out-performed their west Asian counterparts.
The staggering rise of the Chinese art market dwarfed that of the Middle East many times over. Brash young Russian collectors, some of them oligarch offspring, were far more visible than Gulf sheikhs and sheikhas rumored to be buying regional fare.
But after a financial crisis and an uneven recovery, the Middle Eastern art market is starting to look like a surprising success story. This month, Michael Jeha, the managing director of Christie’s in the Middle East, was in town to tell that story, and the role his organization has played in twisting the plot.
Born in London of Lebanese origins, Jeha is disconcertingly boyish for the boss of an operation that has sold $206 million in art, watches and jewels since 2006. Now 35, he joined Christie’s as an intern at 22. “I worked my way up from the bottom,” he says.
He helped write the business plan for Christie’s Dubai, and became managing director after the first sales season in 2006. The global buying activity of regional clients has since risen by 400 percent, and the Middle East auctions have set 320 records, including Baalbaki’s in April. (The next round of sales is scheduled for October.)
“The pace of growth in the Middle East has been significant,” he says. “In Dubai alone, there are over 50 or 60 galleries now. Five years ago, there were maybe five. You have art fairs now in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Beirut and Marrakesh. You have museum participation in Qatar and Abu Dhabi. Not only that, you have institutional participation around the world. We’re starting to see museums globally acquiring Middle Eastern art, which is a strong sign.”
Did Christie’s make any of this happen? Not directly, but it definitely shook things up.
“There are many players,” says Jeha. “Many people deserve enormous credit for helping to grow the art scene in the Middle East. It’s a movement that took off from the grass roots, from the bottom up. It began with a hunger from collectors and private individuals. The greatest impact Christie’s has had was to help bring unity to the market. We took a market that was previously localized, and we first regionalized it, and we then helped internationalize it.”
That said, many collectors have also been priced out in the process.
“This is the natural order of things,” says Jeha. “In general, we live in capitalist societies, whether people like it or not. And in general, it’s about supply and demand. When the demand for an artist increases, the price will go up, and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop that. Why should they? It’s the same thing in real estate. It’s the same thing in equity markets. But guess what, it will be helping those artists, it will be helping their galleries, and it will be helping the economy overall.
“People will come to Beirut to see those artists, their works and their shows, and that will have incrementally positive effects on the economy. Then there will be new, emerging talent. It will inspire other, younger artists. If you can’t afford one of the mainstream artists now because their pricing point has gone up, then you can turn your attention to up-and-coming artists. You can buy their work still for a couple thousand dollars. And maybe you’ll be happy in time because you picked the right one. This is the way it works.”
For that and other reasons, including a rapidly thinning supply of quality modern art, Christie’s is now shifting its focus toward contemporary.
Still, with more at stake in the market, the dearth of documentation, along with the problem of forgeries and fakes, has come into sharp relief, particularly as modern material becomes so rare.
“Lack of documentation is a problem, and everyone has to accept this. We need more books that record an artist’s complete oeuvre, or at least the important works. In the West, pretty much every major artist has a recognized expert, be it the family, the estate or outside experts. It’s a formalized process to authenticate works, and most of the artists have catalogues raisonnés. We need to move in this direction in the Middle East.
“Iraqi art in particular is very tricky for a combination of reasons, not only authenticity but also stolen art. In the absence of full documentation we advise people to be very careful. It’s less of a problem in Lebanon. Have we seen fakes? Of course we have. But we see fakes everywhere. It’s not a problem specific to the region. It’s human nature, the order of things, sadly, is that when an artist’s value goes up, you are going to have people who copy and fake.
“But for most of the artists, there are good checks and good experts, outside experts as well as our own. When you see hundreds of works by these artists you tend to get a very good sense of what’s right and what’s wrong. The beauty of auction is that you’re dealing with the open, international art market. It goes online for hundreds of thousands of people around the world. It is there for everyone to see.”