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Lukewarm reception of US's first Iranian contemporary art sale a reflection of tentative market

Experts blame poor sales on a dearth of representation in US museums

The first ever US sale of Iranian contemporary art was held in New York last month, but met with a subdued response. The modest collection offered at Bonhams’ 11 May sale totalled $343,045—under the $407,000 high estimate (results include buyer’s premium, estimates do not), and was 70% sold by lot. “The sale was not as good as we expected,” said Mehreen Rizvi-Khursheed, head of Middle Eastern art at Bonhams. “Maybe we were too early. It’s a learning curve, and we are now finding out what people want here.”

Despite the world’s largest Iranian expatriate community, the US market for contemporary Iranian art “is still in its infancy”, said Rizvi-Khursheed, particularly in comparison with cities like Dubai and London where there have been dedicated sales of Middle Eastern contemporary art, including Iran, since 2005.

This is partly due to politics, according to Leila Heller of New York’s LTMH gallery, one of the only US galleries dedicated to contemporary Middle Eastern art. “Europe is a step ahead of the US because it’s not so Iran-o-phobic,” said Heller. “While Bush was in power, we had eight years of listening to how Iran was part of the ‘axis of evil’ instead of hearing about the great art produced in a country with a great culture.’”

Indeed, just months before President Bush branded Iran a member of the infamous trio, UK-based curator Rose Issa unveiled “Iranian Contemporary Art” at the Barbican Gallery in April 2001. “The exhibition was seminal—it was the first show in a major museum,” said Roxane Zand, director of Sotheby’s Middle Eastern department. Since then, several other UK museums have increased their focus on the region, including Tate which last month said that it is extending the reach of its collection to areas including the Middle East. It announced the acquisition of 13 works by Middle Eastern artists, including Iranian artist Mahmoud Bakhshi Moakhar’s Air Pollution of Iran, 2004-06, and Samira Eskandarfar’s A Dowry for Mahrou, 2006.

US museums have lagged behind. The 2009 exhibition “Iran Inside Out”, curated by Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath at New York’s Chelsea Art Museum, was the first major American show to focus on the region, aside from a small group exhibition of Middle Eastern artists held at MoMA, “Without Boundary: Seventeen Ways of Looking”, in 2006.

The lack of institutional initiatives in the US is the main obstacle to igniting a healthy collector base, according to Maryam Homayoun-Eisler, co-chair of Tate Modern’s Middle East North Africa Acquisitions Committee (Menaac), who co-organised the Chelsea show. “The system only works if private individuals, galleries and institutions are all on board.”

Another problem is the restricted trade relations between the US and Iran, which means works entering the country can get held up or refused entry. “All the sanctions mean that it’s a real challenge,” said Heller. She sometimes organises shipments through galleries in Dubai and Europe to bypass the system, as they face fewer trade barriers.

Leila Khastoo, owner of the Los Angeles-based Khastoo gallery which represents several Iran-based artists including Vahid Sharifian, said she, too, faced obstacles after opening her space in 2008. “It’s perfectly legal and fine to bring art work from Iran,” said Khastoo. “But customs brokers don’t know that and are frightened to go near it. Several said it was impossible and couldn’t be done.”

Another factor is the political tensions inside the region, which have had an impact on both artists and their works. After last year’s post-election protests, Tehran-based artists, brothers Rokni and Ramin Haerizadeh, discovered that their names had been “blacklisted”, following their participation in European shows including Charles Saatchi’s “Unveiled: New Art from the Middle East”. “The brothers were tipped off that the Iranian authorities had come into collectors’ homes to take down their work,” said their European dealer Thaddaeus Ropac. “As a result they were warned not to return. It’s now impossible to get their earlier works out.” The brothers have not yet returned to Tehran, and now live and work in Dubai.

However, curator Rose Issa said a market shift is quietly taking place. “We are now seeing US public institutions who are not afraid of the work. In the last two years, important museum curators who have never been to the Arab world or Iran are starting to visit.” Indeed, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston implemented a patrons circle, Friends of the Islamic World, and an Arts of the Islamic World trustee subcommittee—which has already raised $6m towards acquisitions—in 2007.

“The market is now becoming more mature and more sophisticated,” said Will Lawrie, head of Christie’s sales of international modern and contemporary art in Dubai. While he admits that the US market for Iranian art is still sluggish, he predicts a big growth. “There is still a lot of ground to be made up, but there is great potential.”

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'British Museum agrees Iran loan'