ART at Auction

By Highet, Juliet | The Middle East, May 1998 | Go to article overview

ART at Auction


Highet, Juliet, The Middle East


As The Middle East goes to press London's fine art auctioneers, including Sotheby's and Christie's, are gearing up for Islamic Week. This is a week dominated by an exceptional series of sales, incorporating a number of private collections, from the rich and varied arts of the Islamic world The past few years have seen a noticeable heightening in enthusiasm for sales of Islamic art which, last October at Sotheby's, achieved record totals. Juliet Higher reports on this rich and varied genre.

Although there have always been ardent connoisseurs of Islamic art prepared to cross a desert or two to secure a particularly precious Mughal turban ornament, or an exquisite Persian miniature, international interest and collecting only took off 25 years or so ago.

In 1975 the World of Islam Festival was held at various venues all over London, which was to have far-reaching consequences in raising public awareness of Arab-Muslim culture, not least initiating twice-yearly exhibitions and sales in London which have become known as Islamic Week. They now represent such a significant date in the global arts calendar that no dealer, collector, academic nor museum curator dare miss one.

As a result of that seminal festival, London has become the centre for Islamic art, rather appropriately, being neatly half-way between the Eastern and Western worlds.

Simultaneously, the newly oil-rich Gulf states and Iran launched into a splurge of collecting for their burgeoning institutions and museums, as well as for private houses, palaces, and latterly for corporate buildings. Like a chameleon, the Islamic art market to this day continues to absorb and reflect developments in collecting, from Turkey, for example, keen to gather its long dispersed heritage back to its shores. Several countries in South East Asia with predominantly Muslim populations, such as Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia, have been expressing their Islamic identity by patronage of those arts.

With London as the magnet for Islamic art, Sotheby's currently has an annual turnover there of about o2 million for Islamic (and Indian) art, and claims 65 per cent of the world auction market for Islamic art.

During the 1980s a combination of the new Arab collectors with the traditional European and American buyers created a massive hike in the value of the Islamic art market. The momentum gathered pace between '86 and '90, as with the rest of the art market, there were some amazing, some might say crazy, prices paid. "The art market as a whole is a long-term cyclical saga of boom, bust and pick-up," said David Tyler, Commercial and Financial Director of Christie's, London. "In the late 1980s we had the most enormous boom -- the Japanese, Americans, Arabs and Europeans -- everyone was feeling rich and spending their money on art. Then we fell off a cliff in '89 to '90. The Japanese just turned off the tap, as did many other markets. Since then there has been a gradual improvement with the world economy thriving again and people beginning to feel they can afford art. Key sectors in the recovery have been Jewellery, Impressionist and Modern art." (`Modern' being from 1875 to the Second World War, while 'Contemporary' indicates post-war art.)

While everyone connected with the art market is feeling a trifle smug about the strengthening of prices, experts in the Islamic field agree that their own category behaved rather differently all along, Islamic art stayed pretty constant. It was not so much that tumbling sale prices were the problem during the recession, rather that nobody wanted to sell. With confidence so low, there was a dearth of good material and therefore no enthusiasm a real Catch 22 situation. What is fascinating about the Islamic art market is that throughout the recession and until today, the evidence is that with a spectacular lot that's got all the right ingredients -- rarity quality, good provenance, fresh to the market and reasonably estimated then the sky is the limit. …

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