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11 June 2023

A catalyst for the region’s vibrant art market

By Mustafa Alrawi



Christie’s has easily beaten its own expectations since setting up shop in the United Arab Emirates. The Arab and Iranian art market has come of age. There will be more and more competition coming into the region. There is a global trend of increasing demand for art as an investment.


Since James Christie opened his first auction house in London in 1766, the group has become synonymous with fine art and record-breaking sales. More than 200 years later, Lebanese Michael Jeha has spearheaded the drive to bring the international art world to the Middle East with notable success. Backpage spoke to him about the group’s recent successful sale which smashed expectations and included a record-breaking purchase of a piece by Iranian artist Farhad Moshiri.


—Christie’s has been making an impact in Dubai. Has it gone according to plan so far?

—We have doubled expectations for our first three years of operation here. Within the first 18 months we have sold $61.5 million (Dh225.8m). We had forecast a turnover of $30m (Dh110.16m) over that period. There have been three rounds of sales since we started here, five sales in total so far. Going forward, the formula will be two sales seasons per year – one in the spring and one in the autumn. Two sales each time.


—Considering the success of Christie’s in this region over the last two years and the increasing number of operators who have set up here, can the local art market sustain this kind of growth going forward?

—Christie’s, through auctions and exhibitions, has provided a catalyst for the art market in the Middle East that has led to more and more galleries opening up, exhibitions taking place on a more regular basis and the art market is starting to blossom. With other players such as Art Dubai and with an increasingly high-level of support from the government, the market will continue to thrive and competition will increase. There will be more and more competition coming to this market.


—How big is the market now? Are there any statistics that show the total volume of business being done?

—There aren’t any figures that we are aware of but Christie’s can only comment on its own business. In 2007 we have sold $53m (Dh194.6) worth of art. In 2006 we sold $8.5m (Dh31.2m).


—Are international collectors and buyers taking the UAE market seriously?

—There has been increased participation by international collectors. In our art sale on October 31, while 60 per cent of buyers were from the Middle East the rest were from the United States, Europe and Asia. We are bringing Arab and Iranian art to a global audience.


—In your recent sale, one buyer paid $500,000 (Dh1.83m) for a Swarovski crystal-covered painting by Iranian artist Farhad Moshiri. Did this mark a turning point for Middle Eastern art and for Christie’s work in the region?

—We said after the last sale that Arab and Iranian art had come of age. We have very much broken new boundaries. There is a lot of potential going forward.


—Record crude oil prices and a booming Gulf economy have resulted in a lot of excess liquidity. Do you think this is what has been driving investment in art here? And will your business suffer in any future economic downturn?

—Regarding this subject, it’s important to state that Christie’s don’t advise people to by art as an investment. First and foremost you should like the piece. The majority of people buy art for aesthetic reasons because they want the piece, they are attracted to it and it’s something they want to live with. There has been a growing trend globally, not restricted to the Middle East, which has seen a rise in the number of people looking to invest in art. With so much excess liquidity in the world there are more players looking at art as an alternative asset and a means of diversifying their investments. This has been particularly the case in the contemporary art market.


— Your sponsors have included institutions such as Credit Suisse based in the Dubai International Financial Centre. How has the investment banking community – traditionally great supporters of the art world – helped in the growth of the market in the UAE?

—The response from the banking community has been extremely favourable. We are seeing more and more financial institutions in the region wanting to participate in the arts. Be it through sponsoring exhibitions or providing educational seminars in art for their clients.


Michael Jeha, Managing Director, Christie’s Dubai


Educated at City University’s CASS Business School, Michael Jeha has worked with auctioneers Christie’s for the past nine years.


Of Lebanese origin, 31-year-old Jeha lived in London from a young age. He joined Christie’s in January 1999 after interning with them the previous year.  While business manager for the valuations department in London he was involved in the sales of many prestigious collections, including the renowned Arlington Street sale. 


Jeha became Managing Director of Christie’s Dubai operations in October 2006, setting up the group’s offices and hiring staff locally as well as bringing in colleagues from Europe. 

He now lives full-time in Dubai.