Christie’s drops a Dubai sale

The news that Christie’s was reducing its activities in Dubai was rather buried in the press release for its (pretty good) half-year-results: “after 11 years of holding bi-annual sale seasons in the Middle East and establishing an international platform for Middle Eastern artists, Christie’s will hold its first Middle Eastern Modern and Contemporary Art sale in London in October to coincide with Islamic Week”.

Or to put it another way, Christie’s will no longer be scheduling two sales a year in Dubai.

International buyers account for 30 percent of Christie’s Dubai sales, according to Michael Jeha (right), Christie’s MD and deputy chairman for the Middle East. Most of their bids are remote, so the sale location is probably irrelevant to them. And the remaining 70 percent of sales isn’t powerful enough to compete with the lure of ‘Islamic Art Week’ in London – Christie’s Modern and Contemporary Middle Eastern Art sale on 25 October joins the Sotheby’s sale of 20th Century Art/Middle East two days before. Bonham’s is reportedly going to hold a similar auction around the same time, though that’s not confirmed yet.

The London evening sale at Christie’s will contain around 60 lots, compared with over 160 at the last Dubai sale in March this year. That realised $8.1 million, and there maybe a clue in the comparison with the previous autumn sale in Dubai – the October 2016 auction realised $6.5 million from 94 sold lots, March saw $8.1 million from 106 lots (the sale amounts include fees). So there’s not much difference in the number of artworks on offer, but the Spring version averaged a sale more than 10 percent higher.

At the time, though, Christie’s seemed pretty pleased. “Dubai October auctions confirm the strength of a growing art market in the Middle East” was the headline on the press release, and Jeha was quoted as saying “this autumn auction season has cemented Dubai as an essential part of the international auction circuit”.

Clearly not essential enough. So is the shift from twice-yearly sales in Dubai to a single March event a measure of Christie’s confidence in the local market? Has the potential of a regional audience and/or Dubai’s economic base been oversold?

The official word is that it has nothing to do with Dubai per se – it’s just that a London sale will be better for engaging a wider audience for regional art, and it’s all “part of Christie’s global strategy” to “internationalise the market further for Middle Eastern art”.

There again, last October saw Christie’s auction of Important Watches in Dubai clock up $3.9 million the day after the Modern and Contemporary Art sale. Not good enough to repeat, it seems: instead, “the Dubai watch team will be responsible for an additional online auction, mirroring the Dubai live auction offering”, according to a Christie’s statement quoted in The Art Newspaper.

Christie’s celebrated its 10th anniversary in Dubai back in 2016, when its Global President Jussi Pylkkänen suggested the Middle Eastern market had matured and become “so current” that people measured the art market climate going into London and New York auctions based on the success of Dubai sales.

The Dubai office wasn’t originally opened to run auctions. In 2016, Jeha told us that “initially the plan was for a representative office, a bridge between the Middle East and the rest of the world, providing service for clients in the region”.

But May 2006 saw the first auction with 150 lots and it was a success: “there were always collectors here,” said Michael Jeha. “For us it was about developing new collectors and encouraging them to participate in Christie’s globally and we’ve really seen that.”

Some of his other comments in that interview (in magpie, April 2016) seem prescient: “one of our key roles has been to marginalize the market and internationlise it. Before we came it was very fractured, localised. You had a strong market in Lebanon, Iran and Egypt, but no one really spoke to each other. No one knew or bought each other’s art.

“Now everyone is buying each other’s art, knows each other’s art around the region. Now, globally, there are people acquiring Middle Eastern art, private collectors, institutions.

“That has been our biggest achievement, to help internationalise the market for Middle Eastern art and to bring a global audience to artists.”

Above: Dia Al-Azzawi’s Arsak Mowt (Your Wedding is Death) realised $235,500 – against a top estimate of $80,000 – in the October 2016 Dubai sale

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