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On the Auction Block

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When the auctioneer’s gavel hit the rostrum at Christie’s Dubai last October and bidding concluded on The Whirling Dervishes, an early work by Egyptian artist Mahmoud Said, seven unhappy bidders were left in the dust, a new record for the most expensive painting ever sold at a Middle East auction entered into the books and one lucky winner finished the day with an almost $2.5 million (all figures in U.S. dollars) dent in his pocket. Not that he was complaining.

The 1929 painting was part of a 55-piece collection of modern Egyptian works belonging to Dr. Mohammed Said Farsi, the former mayor and Lord Mayor of Jeddah in Saudi Arabia and patron of the arts. The collection netted an impressive $15.4 million at auction – triple its presale estimate. 

The final tally helped make October 2010 the best season yet for Christie’s Dubai, which accounted for over half of its $51 million in sales last year – a 153 percent increase over 2009.

Five years ago, Dubai was a bit player in this exclusive world, but as its global economic prominence has edged upwards, so too has its profile on the auction block. In 2005, Christie’s set up its Middle East sales office in the emirate. Bonhams, the prestigious British auction house, followed suit in 2007. Both now hold bi-annual sales in the city, which also plays host to the region’s leading contemporary art fair, Art Dubai.

“When we came to the region in 2005, Dubai had five galleries, and no art fairs or museum projects,” says Isabelle de la Bruyere, Christie’s Middle East director. “Today, it has 60 galleries and many art fairs.”

With a geographic advantage midway between the bustling art markets of Asia and the West, Dubai is attracting both local investors and the international jet set to its art-focused auctions. “The United Arab Emirates is a transportation hub. With so many people traveling through here, the market has access to a diverse client base,” says Guy Vesey, regional director for Bonhams in the Middle East. “And because of the wealth in the region, local investors are keen to build collections of all sorts of things – from cars to watches, carpets, manuscripts and paintings.”

At the Middle East’s first ever car auction, held by Bonhams last October, a 1972 Ferrari GTB went for a cool $300,000, while Christie’s Dubai has sold a whopping $12 million worth of gems at its jewelry auctions since 2005.

“In our last season, we offered 41 jewelry sets, comprised each of a ring, a bracelet, a pair of earrings and matching necklace,” explains de la Bruyere. “A little over an hour into the sale, all 41 lots had found new owners, mostly Middle Eastern.”


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