Cashing in on the oil-rich United Arab Emirates as the newest art market destination is the latest gambit of a bevy of international dealers, fair organizers, art consultants, architects and interior designers. After all, the Middle East boasts 46 billionaires and counting.
"Bill Gates is hardly the richest man in the world by Saudi standards," says one auction-house veteran. The lavish lifestyles of Arab princes, each with a dozen palaces or more, has long been legendary. Now, more importantly, it has become an enticing reality, well within reach of a growing number of Western art dealers.
If the Chinese and Indian contemporary art markets can take off practically overnight, so the thinking goes, then the Middle East will do so in a nanosecond. After all, global travel, especially in such off-the-beaten-track locales as the Arab world and Africa, is pegged to jump by $6 trillion over the next decade, according to Morgan Stanley stats.
Or look at it this way: in December, Dubai World, a government-owned investment group, snapped up 5,000,000 shares of MGM Mirage for a cool $424 million, and Dubai World chairman Sultan Ahmed Bin Sulayem wants to plow a total of $5.1 billion into foreign companies as part of his efforts to diversify the economy. The government investment fund owns Barneys and a slew of Park Avenue office buildings, while nearby Abu Dhabi has a chunk of Citigroup. Already home to 10 percent of the world’s oil reserves and five percent of global gas holdings, Abu Dhabi is fast ratcheting up its position in the museum world. On the drawing boards there are museums by Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry and Jean Nouvel.
"Do the math," says Michael Jeha, who heads up Christie’s Middle East division. "Abu Dhabi is pumping 400 million barrels of oil a day," he says. "That’s close to $3 billion a week." Jeha says that Stephen Lash, Christie’s Americas chairman, wants to hold the firm’s board meetings in Dubai.
Such figures give only an inkling of the total wealth in the region. So it stands to reason that Brit art fair organizers Anna and Brian Haughton, whose shows at the Park Avenue Armory are a mandatory stop for high-powered collectors like Henry Kravis, Steve Schwarzman and John Thain, would venture into the desert.
But introducing the western paradigm of arts fairs to the cultures centered around the Arab Gulf poses a variety of challenges, and the Haughton’s latest show, dubbed Art and Antiques Dubai, demonstrates the potential rewards and the particular problems that accompany entry into this market.
Running Feb. 21-24, 2008, Art and Antiques Dubai presented 44 dealers at the Madinat Arena, a rather Disney-like exposition hall complete with turrets, just steps away from the $6,000-per-night seven-star Burj Al Arab hotel. Nearby is shopping central with just about every major brand from Gucci to Yves St. Laurent staking out a presence in an area that is also dotted with Starbucks and Mercedes dealerships -- Hummers, Range Rovers and the occasional Ferrari tool down the highways. With the world’s biggest shopping center, Dubai clearly can claim the status of the Mideast shopping capital.
"They’ve got the financial wealth and infrastructure in place for a fair, so culture is the natural next step in their development," says Emma Jane Haughton, 31, who tipped her parents off to Dubai as the new art destination two years ago. Since then she has jetted into Dubai exactly seven times in setting up their sixth branded fair.
The dealer lineup was international. Thirteen countries, including France, Russia, Syria, the UK, U.S., Austria, Italy, Australia, Monaco, Japan and Dubai, were represented. And some dealers were tip-top, like Ronald Phillips of London with prize 18th-century English furniture, Bernard J. Shapero of London with rare books and maps (he is a regular at TEFAF Maastricht) and District of Columbia dealer Geoffrey Diner with Tiffany glass (he participates in the Winter Antiques Show). Others were less impressive, bringing weak Renoir portraits (that the Impressionist artist turned out practically by the wagon load) as well as gilt clocks so regilded they could light up a cave. They looked, shall we say, more Vegas than antique.
Right from the vernissage, the fair displayed some signs of success. No less than two prime ministers dropped in to stroll the aisles, with a total of three local television stations recording the visitations. While Muslim law forbids alcohol, the champagne-free evening event bore all the other requisite trimmings, including canapés, clinking ice cubes and politely whispered conversation. Absent only was the crushing number of fairgoers found at society benefits in the west.
Though sparse, attendance throughout the fair was decidedly international, with Chinese, Philippines, Arabs, Australians, Africans, French, British and many Indians on hand (Mumbai is a mere two-hour flight away). A Palm Beach collector who happens to specialize in Art Deco even jetted in for the fair. Requests for additional tickets were telephoned in to the Haughtons from Bahrain, Tehran and other nearby spots. A curator of the Seoul Art Museum was reportedly on the fair floor.
Of course, Orientalist paintings were found in profusion. With Muslim law frowning on the portrayal of humans, examples of animal painting seemed abundant. One favorite subject is the camel, which in these parts almost claims equal footing with the racehorse. Camel races are regularly held in Dubai. Plus, images of falcons were prevalent in just about every media: Meissen porcelain, oil painting, silver craftsmanship. Dealers joked about counting more than 24 different works depicting the famous bird of prey.
Still, what’s the level of sophistication, broadly speaking? "Up until 10 years ago, art history was not taught in schools," says London dealer Brian McDermott of Mathaf Gallery, who has traveled to these parts for over three decades exhibiting and lecturing. "I explain the difference between an oil and watercolor," he says. At his stand, several period paintings were marked sold, as well as contemporary work by Peter Upton, who is an international judge of Arabian horses.
Buying appeared patchy, even though representatives of royal families dropped by. In this part of the world, these royal gofers make Hollywood personal shoppers seem pedestrian.
Koopman Rare Art was on hand, understandably, since the London firm has a good track record in the region, having assembled one of the most important private collections of antique silver in the world for Mahdi Tajir, former UAE Ambassador to the Court of St. James. Whisked off the Koopman stand opening night was a French sterling silver and enamel wind-up horseracing game, ca. 1920. "Silver gilt is most in demand in this part of the world," says Koopman director Lewis Smith. So not so surprisingly, a shopper plucked up a massive George III silver gilt tray edged with a border replicating woven willow.
Georg Jensen silver was a hit, too, with New York specialist dealer Alastair Crawford selling up a storm. Sold was a Blossom tea set for $100,000 and a pair of 1918 Grape compotes for $100,000, among other items.
But gold seemed to be the hottest ticket. Australian dealer Lesley Kehoe quickly sold off an 11 fold screen of gleaming gold foil, sand, crushed stone and antique fabric by Japanese artist Maio Motoko for $200,000, as well as a gold lacquered box.
Other coveted wares included ethnic furniture and Ottoman textiles. A private collector found what he wanted at the booth of London dealer Amir Mohtashemi -- an 1880 Spanish revival table, originally made for the Islamic market. Crafted of palisander (rosewood) with bone inlay spelling out Islamic inscriptions, the octagonal table conjured up the Arab world.
Traditional antiques are falling out of favor in the West, but in the Arab Middle East the situation is remarkably different. The parable here has an antiques dealer explaining the finer points of a particular centuries-old example and his client asking, "You mean, it’s used furniture?"
Many a dealer reported interest in their offerings. A pair of 1825 pietra dura (Italian hardstone) panels rejigged as coffee tables were favored by a shopper at Ronald Phillips Ltd. The panels had everything that a buyer could want: provenance (supplied by the Marquess of Londonderry, whose great granddaughter Annabelle is celebrated by a London club bearing her name) coupled with subject matter (an Arabian horse and palm tree picked out in stone). The price is a cool $250,000. "They’re very interested in provenance as in the same way they pursue blood lines of their horses," said Jeremy Garfield-Davies, director of the London firm.
Manhattan gallery Maison Gerard also played the provenance card by showcasing a Jansen desk of ebonized wood and gilt with crystal handles. It’s believed to be the personal desk of King Farouk’s wife, Queen Farida. Priced at $175,000, the desk had many admirers.
Period books and maps pertaining to the Persian Gulf were also in big demand, with Bernard J. Shapero Rare Books writing up enough sales of such wares to total a six-figure sum. "Sovereign institutions have been buying from us for 20 years," says Shapero’s Daniel Crouch. On their stand was a 1310 Koran manuscript for a cool $2 million, a 1482 map of Arabia for $50,000 and early English 19th-century aquatints of horses.
Among the bigger-selling dealers was Ayyum of Damascus, which specializes in contemporary art from the region. "Syrians, Lebanese and local residents bought from us," says Rari Ayyum, while noting that her clientele sees such purchases as investments. In total, her gallery tallied up $400,000 in sales.
Despite the good beginning, the general feeling was that future versions of Western fairs need to pump up the volume on marketing efforts to nurture collectors. "Look at Basel; it took over three decades to reach super-star status," said one savvy dealer. "Dubai won’t happen overnight."
BROOK S. MASON is U.S. correspondent for the Art Newspaper, and also writes for the Financial Times, the New York Sun and other publications.