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Iranian artists triumph at Christie's Dubai as contemporary market hits its stride

Christie's '08 auction report sees the mediocre pushed aside to make way for big names

Dubai. Yet another set of records was broken when Christie’s held its fourth sale of Arab, Iranian and Western work in Dubai on 30 April. The sale made $20m, with the top lot, Parviz Tanavoli’s The Wall (Oh Persepolis), 1975, selling to a phone bidder for $2.8m (est $400,000-$600,000), a world record for any Iranian artist at auction.

Besides the Tanavoli, three other works went for over $1m: Iranian painters Charles Hossein Zenderoudi (Tchaar-Bagh, 1981; $1.6m, est $200,000-$250,000) and Mohammed Ehsai (He is the Merciful, 2007; $1.1m, est $100,000-$150,000), as well as Robert Indiana’s Love sculpture which sold for $1m (est $1m-$1.5m) to an Iranian collector resident in the United Arab Emirates. The sale was 84% sold by lot and 93% by value.

While 77% of buyers came from the Middle East and Iran, there are signs that the market is becoming more international. Charles Saatchi bought his second work by the young artist Rokni Haerizadeh, Razm, 2006, for $51,400 (est $22,000-$28,000), via a partner in the artist’s Dubai gallery, B21, who bid on his behalf. US collector Steve Cohen was in the Gulf at the time of the sale, ostensibly for business related to his hedge fund SAC Capital, but his art advisor Sandy Heller spent time scouring the galleries and attended the sale, bidding on works by Tanavoli and Zenderoudi. There was enthusiastic bidding for Farhad Moshiri’s I Love You Until Eternity which sold for $769,000 (est $200,000-$250,000). According to Christie’s, a number of the top lots were bought—for the first time—by “serious collectors” of south Asian contemporary art.

The market appears to be maturing, with more run-of-the-mill works by modern Arab painters failing to sell and bidders competing fiercely for museum-quality or rare works. But institutional buying is in its infancy—and with several collectors collaborating with the UAE government on planning museums, the lines between private and public are often blurred. Dubai International Financial Centre bought Bishra (Announcement), a triptych by UAE artist Abdul Kadir Al-Rais, for $385,000 (est $150,000-$250,000), and Qatar’s Museum of Modern Arab Art (currently at the planning stage) was also rumoured to have had buyers in the room.

The auction confirmed the strength of the market for Iranian painting: seven of the top ten lots were by Iranian painters, including three works by Zenderoudi. Young Iranian businessmen, resident in Dubai, Cyprus and Tehran, convivially bid against each other (and the phones), pushing up the prices of works by Koorosh Shishegaran, Gholamhossein Nami and Faramarz Pilaram well beyond their estimates. Edgy, contemporary photography also did well; Shirin Aliabadi’s Miss Hybrid #4, for example, sold for $55,000 (est $7,000-$10,000).

Christie’s has negotiated with Dubai Customs to bring the export tax for art down to 5% of the lower estimate, rather than the hammer price. At a time when markets elsewhere look shaky, the auction house is celebrating sales of over $100m of art and jewellery since it began auctions in Dubai two years ago. The auction house’s sale in Paris on 3 June will include figurative and calligraphic works by modern Arab and Iranian artists alongside orientalist painting, aiming to draw in French and North African buyers to this market.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Iranian artists lead the pack'