Last year followed on from a series of milestone moments for the Middle Eastern art scene, highlighted by the landmark opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi in 2017, and, closer to home, Sotheby’s gallery space and inaugural auction in Dubai.
Today the UAE is recognised as a hub for art, spanning classical to contemporary, with the fundamental message that the very best from all cultures should be shared to promote cultural exchange and inspire new dialogues.
Setting the stage for the coming year are two recent transformative developments – one international and the other homegrown.
The first is the magnificent Albukhary Foundation Gallery of the Islamic World in the British Museum in London. Islamic art is now placed in the run of main galleries and into the heart of the British Museum’s story, a revelation that presents Islamic art as a living tradition.
The second is the opening of the Jameel Arts Centre in Dubai, a space for serious curatorial explorations and a welcome foray into working from the ground up. The celebrated internationalism of the Dubai art scene may have occasionally overlooked a focus on local developments and this is exactly what the Jameel Arts Centre will remedy.
Launching in the same week as the 10th anniversary of the Abu Dhabi Art Fair, it feeds into the exceptional art eco-system in the UAE – a mix of commercial, institutional and governmental initiatives alongside international brands, including Sotheby’s auction house and its storied 275-year history.
Since Sotheby’s opened its gallery in Dubai in 2017, we have been continuously looking to expand what we offer clients and the wider public in the region, and to bring the expertise of our international specialists directly to their doorsteps.
One of the high-points of the year was undoubtedly bringing to Dubai the impressive pearls and diamonds that adorned the ill-fated Queen Marie-Antoinette, an exhibition that sparked a sensation amongst jewellery lovers and history buffs alike.
In November, once its world-tour had ended, the Bourbon-Parma collection sold in Geneva to set a new record for a sale of Royal Jewels at $53.1m, led by a world auction record for that colossal natural pearl at $36.2m. At the same time, one wall across from the jewellery, we unveiled a rediscovered masterpiece by master of the Dutch Golden Age, Rembrandt, inaugurated by guest of honour Noura Al Kaabi, UAE minister for culture and knowledge development.
Last year also marked Sotheby’s first-ever watches auction in the Middle East, which took place in November and was a fantastic opportunity to share yet another passion with both established and first-time collectors. The auction hammered down $2.6m in a packed saleroom, with 25 per cent of the participants completely new to our auctions. We will be hosting our second Dubai Watches sale in March this year.
One of my personal highlights – also a career highlight – was Sotheby’s sale of the indescribably rare inky-blue Iznik ‘Debanne’ Charger, which broke the auction record for an Islamic object at $6.9m. Fiercely competitive bidding started at GBP300,000 ($378,000), and continued for over 20 minutes with nine collectors and institutions from all over the world participating in the room, on the telephones and even online. The piece encapsulates the four key things that collectors are always looking for – rarity, beauty, condition and provenance.
Last but not least, it was a great year and a buoyant market for modern and contemporary masters from the Middle East, and we achieved 16 artist records including new benchmark prices for GCC artists Hassan Sharif, Mohammed Kazem, Maha Malluh and Abdulrahman Al Soliman. These are artists that have received a tremendous amount of attention in the region recently, and we felt that it was important that they get the recognition they deserve internationally, in the context of a London auction.
Institutionally, there is more exciting news for these names, as the incredible Sharif exhibition that was at Sharjah is set to travel to Italy and Germany in 2019 and potentially to New York. From now until March, hanging in Sotheby’s Dubai for public view is a selection of works by Modern Arab and Iranian masters, which are for private sale – including pieces by Mahmoud Saïd, Ayman Baalbaki and Nabil Nahas.
Over the last four years, Sotheby’s has sold over $152.9m worth of Islamic and Middle Eastern Art, with thousands of clients from around the world bidding in these sales. What was particularly exciting about 2018 is that a quarter of these bidders were new to Sotheby’s.
Broadening this out to our global sales, but focusing on clients from the UAE, we saw a 20 per cent increase in buyers and bidders from the region last year.
What has not changed is the ethos that underpins our exhibitions and sales – our desire to speak to the universal nature and timeless appeal of great works of art. The past two years have been just the beginning of many initiatives Sotheby’s is planning to launch in the UAE, and so we look forward to what 2019 has to bring – from the extraordinary objects still out there waiting to be discovered to our evolving calendar of events.