DUBAI: Iran’s smart set turned out in force for this year’s Tehran Art Auction, spending a record amount as the country’s modern and contemporary art scene thrives in the face of economic sanctions.
Held Friday, the annual event was a sell-out, raising $5.1 million from the auction of works by Iranian artists, more than double the amount fetched last year.
While Western sanctions since 2010 on Iran’s oil and financial sectors have sapped Iranian collectors’ purchasing power and forced them to retreat from international art auctions like Christie’s, they have also provided a catalyst to build up the domestic art market.
Since its launch three years ago, the Tehran Art Auction has gained social cachet and most of the 90 items sold went for at least twice their predicted values, according to the Tehran Art Auction website, pushing total sales $2.4 million above forecasts.
The highest-selling pieces were two works by noted Iranian poet and painter, Sohrab Sepehri (1928-80), “Untitled (from the tree trunk series)” and “Untitled” sold for $680,000 and $604,000 respectively.
With no comparable event in town, the auction at Tehran’s Hotel Parsian is very much a place to see and be seen.
Iranian actor Reza Kianian served as auctioneer and the event drew an audience of more than 1,000, although “only about 100 of the people who attended actually bid,” observed Zahra Jahan-Bakhsh, co-head of international sales at Tehran Art Auction.
“Iranians like to show off and this is the best way to do so,” a participant opined. “I can tell by the cars parked in the lots that the attendees are very rich.”
Indeed, many works by the same artists could be found at private galleries for half the price. Tehran boasts more than 200 privately owned galleries, most of which have opened over the past 10 years.
Other notable works on sale included “The Hunting Blue Sky” (1952) by Reza Derakhshani, which fetched $227,000, and “Love” (1939) by Mohammad Ehsai, which went for $219,000.
Sales at the auction have risen from about $1.7 million at the first auction in 2012 when 73 lots were sold. Last year 80 works went on the block, raising $2 million.
Former managing director of Tehran’s Museum of Contemporary Art Alireza Sami Azar, who is credited with bringing Iran’s contemporary art collection out of hiding, founded Tehran Art Auction.
“The economic crisis was the whole reason we started Tehran Art Auction. We’ve had to look to the private sector for support,” he said.
Iranian art attracted attention in 2008, when a work by the sculptor Parviz Tanavoli fetched $2.8 million at Christie’s in Dubai. That remains an auction record for any Middle Eastern artist, said Michael Jeha, Christie’s managing director in the Middle East.
“Iranian art is very rich in heritage. You have a very strong [pool] of Iranian modern artists from the 30s, 40s onwards,” Jeha said. “Over the last seven years since we’ve been holding our auctions, Iranian art has been one of the strongest.”
Today, Tanavoli’s work is in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Tate in London. Before Friday’s auction his work “Heech Lovers” was valued at $38,000-$51,000. It sold for $64,000.
“We owe a lot to Christie’s for having pushed Iranian art into the international spotlight,” Tanavoli said. “Young artists who were scared of the future and filled with doubt are a lot more hopeful these days.
“Iranians used to buy cars,” he pointed out. “Now they buy art.”
The Iranian government has not promoted Iranian art domestically or internationally, leaving the private sector to fill the gap through galleries and auctions. Officials in President Hassan Rouhani’s 11-month-old administration say they want to become more active.
“Iran is more than just carpets,” said Majid Mollanoroozi, the newly appointed director of Tehran’s Museum of Contemporary Art. “But, we’ve done a bad job with regards to marketing Iranian art.”
Mollanoroozi hopes to increase the recognition of Iranian artists internationally and welcomed collaboration with museums such as New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
As Iran’s economy struggles under the weight of economic sanctions, with inflation running at about 40 percent, art is seen as a safe haven for wealthy Iranians that is also capable of generating significant profits.
“Many other sectors ... don’t provide the same rate of return as they used to, so we are turning to art,” said an Iranian collector during the Christie’s auction of Middle East Art in Dubai in March.