Whether you plan to buy or not, Christie’s latest auction of modern and contemporary art from Turkey, Iran and the Middle East is an opportunity you can’t afford to miss.
The history of modern and contemporary art is defined as much by the names of patrons and collectors as it is by the artists themselves: Frick, Mellon, Stein, Guggenheim, Gulbenkian and Saatchi. Among artists and collectors on a budget however, few names elicit as much inspiration, affection and respect as Dorothy and Herbert Vogel.
The Vogels’ example
An unlikely husband and wife team, the Vogels were living proof that you can become a serious art collector even on a limited budget with limited space. Buying only what they could afford – Dorothy was a librarian and Herb was a postal clerk – the couple managed to create one of America’s most important collections of 20th-century conceptualist and minimalist art, collecting almost 5,000 works over a 50-year period. The collection had to fit inside their tiny one-bedroom, rent-controlled apartment on New York’s Upper East Side. In 1991, the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC acquired a significant portion of the collection.
Grab a bargain
From Sunday to October 24, the international auctioneers Christie’s will give budding collectors in the UAE the chance to copy the Vogels with a sale of modern and contemporary art from Iran, Turkey and the Middle East. Promising museum-grade works of art at something approaching affordable prices, the sale has a two-part structure that shows work by younger, contemporary artists alongside pieces by already recognised modern masters and more established names.
Part one of the sale boasts two paintings by Mahmoud Said, Pêcheurs à Rosette (1941) and El Zar (c.1939), neither of which have appeared at auction before. Described as the “father of modern Egyptian painting”, Said’s The Whirling Dervishes (1929) set a new world record for a Middle Eastern artwork when it fetched US$2.5 million (Dh9.2m) at a previous Christie’s Dubai auction in 2010.
Part two of the sale includes more accessible pieces such as Camille Zakharia’s The Fortune Teller, a photomontage/collage from 2010 that’s estimated to achieve $5,000-7,000. Zakaria left Lebanon during the Civil War and his work explores themes of identity, belonging and home.
For Hala Khayat, Christie’s Dubai-based specialist for contemporary Middle Eastern & Iranian art, the more modest valuation commanded by such pieces doesn’t detract from their quality or make them any less compelling. “Works on paper are very exciting. People here were not aware of this kind of art but now it is in demand. The quality is definitely there.”
A free show
Khayat is also keen to attract visitors to the free viewings that proceed the auctions, even if they have no intention of making a bid. “The sale is like a small museum for a few days, but when the sale is over, many of these pieces may never be seen again. We have invited students from several local universities. It’s a great opportunity to come and see the work.”
Quality and rarity
For Khayat, much of the excitement around the work stems not just from its rarity and quality (she spends many months selecting pieces for each sale) but also from the fact that auctions such as this play an important role in helping to develop a wider appreciation for the art of the Middle East.
“The quality of art produced in the region in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s was amazing. In terms of quality, it’s no different from work that was being produced in Paris or London or Germany at the same time. These artists were authentic. They were true to themselves and to their own identity. I’m really happy to play a small part in bringing this work to a wider audience.”
An unfolding story
The story of modern and contemporary art in the Middle East is still unfolding. Much of its history is uncharted territory, and until recently, the art of the region has been characterised by an absence of infrastructure in the form of the archives, libraries, and foundation narratives that are taken for granted in the West.
Until museums such as the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi open and establish a regional canon, auctions offer serious art lovers the opportunity to help shape that future, but as the Vogels and Khayat would agree, that’s an investment that can only really come from a genuine appreciation of the work.
Christie’s auction of Modern and Contemporary Arab, Iranian and Turkish Art, sponsored by Zurich, takes place at the Jumeirah Emirates Towers Hotel, Dubai, on October 23 and 24, 2012. Free viewings are open to the public on Sunday and Monday (2pm to 10pm), October 23 (10am to 10pm selected lots) and October 24 (10am to noon, selected lots). For more information telephone 04 425 5647 or visit www.christies.com
A version of this article appeared in The National, Abu Dhabi