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04 October 2023

Collectors take the spotlight

By Keith J Fernandez



Here in the Middle East, it is no longer enough to have a nice Louis XV-style console table from a warehouse in Sharjah in your living room. Not only does it have to be the real thing, but you have got to appear culturally cognisant of the market, and know why that particular treasure is appreciating skywards as you speak.


Thankfully, the boom in auctions and art fairs, which makes Dubai one of art’s new hot spots, means there is an increased availability of quality art and antiques. With that comes greater access to understanding the complexities of the market – even if it is rather hard to evaluate how much that market is worth.


“The market, at the top, is global. The dealers and buyers operate internationally, drawing the local market into the ever-larger international sphere,” says Brian Haughton, owner of Haughton International Fairs, organisers of the ongoing inaugural Art and Antiques Dubai. “Dubai is fast becoming a major part of the global art market. International art dealers recognise this growth and now look at the market with a long-term view. Many of our exhibitors already have major clients here.”


The event, running until tomorrow at the Madinat Arena at Dubai’s Madinat Jumeirah, is an opportunity to view and buy some of the world’s finest art and antiques, totalling more than $215 million (Dh789.6m) in value. Among the collecting categories are Islamic works of art, rare porcelain and ceramics, silver, antique jewellery, furniture and decorative arts, and fine art including Middle Eastern, Indian and Western paintings, drawings, and sculpture. Highlights include signature pieces by Henry Moore and Picasso, an Orientalist painting by John Singer Sargent worth $13.5m, 17th century porcelain, and big-ticket jewellery from Cartier and Harry Winston.


Haughton expects the fair to attract 10,000 visitors, with buyers jetting in from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain, ample demonstration of the new category of collector: the Middle Eastern art connoisseur.


Indeed, increased spending power in the Arab world, coupled with rising demand for finer status symbols has led to both a greater interest in art and antiques, and to more people putting their money down more confidently. Fifty years ago, people did not spend on art easily, an attitude that has seen a sea change in recent years, says Brian MacDermot, chairman of the London-based Mathaf Gallery, which is exhibiting at the event.

“Regional buyers are now spending more for better quality art and antiques and have become art collectors,” he told Emirates Business. And people are not just buying to invest. “Arab collectors are more sophisticated buyers now. We’ve seen an increase in the knowledge of art and antiques across the region and a change in the tastes of buyers.”


Several reasons contribute to this sudden interest, including the property boom across the region that has spurred the demand for fine art décor. “The development of art museums in Qatar and Abu Dhabi has had a tremendous effect on the growth in demand for art and antiques and trends here have also been impacted by an international revival of 19th century and Orientalist art,” adds MacDermot, whose gallery is displaying several Orientalist pieces.


An idea of just how much money is available for Islamic and Oriental antiques is clear from the £1.14m (Dh8.2m) paid for an 800-year-old Quran at a Christie’s auction last October. The following month, Sotheby’s biggest auction of Islamic antiques raised £13m, including £468,500 for a Gentile Bellini portrait of Ottoman conqueror Fatih Sultan Mehmet.


So what is popular among the region’s heavy hitters? Antiques dealer Amir Mohtashemi, also exhibiting at Art and Antiques Dubai, says new buyers tend to look for decorative arts and textiles from the 16th century on. “Beginners look for anything obvious with calligraphy,” he says. “But the more experienced buyer looks for rare items with historical value.”


To figure out the intricacies of getting from one to another, big spenders get the experts to show them how. Michael Jeha, managing director of Christie’s Middle East and Kanoo Group’s deputy chairman Mishal Kanoo, also an artist in his own right, were on a panel offering art investment tips to members of the exclusive Capital Club last week.


“Given the proliferation of opportunities to buy Middle Eastern art, many of our members have been looking for expert, unbiased insight into building their collections either as individuals or for corporate investment,” says Andrew Christon, Capital Club general manager. “The club welcomed a debate on the intersection between the region’s commercial development and the patronage of its artists and sellers.”


Ask for a quick tip on what to look for, and the specialists turn cagey. “Buying and collecting art is very subjective and collectors should buy objects that they like and want to live with. If you buy quality, at every level, it will always hold or increase its value,” says Haughton.



For Sale Rare Items



Oil on canvas, 46cmx64.8cm, signed “r.delauney” and dated 1916



Silver, dating to Paris circa 1870. Maker’s mark of Antoine Dubain



Watercolour, signed and inscribed with title; 57cmx42cm. German Orientalist painter Haag lived between 1820 and 1915



Silver-gilt, with Paris guarantee punch for 1819-1838, maker’s mark of Jean-Charles Cahier. Height: 32.3cm; weight: 4005g



Bronze; 1914; 69.2cmx15.2cm; signed, numbered and marked with thumbprint on integral base: 3/7 Lipchitz



A finely engraved silver-inlaid bronze casket from western Iran, dating to the first half of the 14th century



A very rare pair of early Worcester vases with their covers, dating to about 1765