Breaking the homogeneity of the art auction

In a sector inescapably entwined with the financial markets, can Eastern artists challenge the dominion of the great European masters?

One only need look at commentary around the first big auction after Britain’s vote to withdraw from the European Union, to see how art has become inexorably linked with the global financial markets.

‘Unsold Lots, Empty Seats as Brexit Hits London Art Auctions’ read a Bloomberg headline. ‘Phillips weathers the storm in first London auction since Brexit,’ was The Art Newspaper’s take, who also quoted Ed Dolman, who is chairman of the auction house, Phillips, as saying that strong bidding from the US and Asia could be attributed to the fall in sterling.

The art was relegated to second place, securing only a cursory nod by way of name and date. This may be unsurprising in a financial journal, but it is significant when considering this auction in context of all other coverage of such events, which buzz relentlessly around one aspect of art – its price.

The union of art and finance, whereby art is considered primarily in the context of its potential value as an asset class, is not a new phenomenon, and has been wryly alluded to by many artists. Gifthorse is one such example; the statue by German sculptor Hans Haacke that stood temporarily in Trafalgar Square is of a horse’s skeleton, complete with an electronic tickertape showing stock prices.

Ai Weiwei's Sunflower Seeds
Visitors to the Tate Modern enjoy Ai Weiwei's 'Sunflower Seeds'. The Chinese artist filled the hall with 100 million seeds which had a collective weight of 150 tons.

Yet, the relationship between the two sectors has become increasingly evident in the last decade (despite nail-biting from financial institutions on the longevity of such an asset; a Deloitte report warned against investing in a sector suffering under “[the] mercy of erratic public taste and short-lived trends”).

Online art magazine The Art Wolf has a frequently updated list of the most expensive paintings of all time. At the top end of the spectrum, the names are not unfamiliar. Picasso is recurrent, with his Les Femmes d’Alger and La Rêve designated as third and fifth most expensive artworks ever (and sold for US$179 and $158 million, respectively).

Moving down the list, the same artists keep cropping up: Van Gogh, Bacon, Pollock, Warhol, Klimt. In fact, out of the full list of 37, all of the artists are either American or European and the majority of their buyers are from the Middle East or China.

“The reason the US$100m plus market is currently focused on Western art is purely because of education ­– these artists are household names and can be found in pop culture, on mugs, coasters, in every museum. You don’t have that in the Middle East,” says Nima Sagharchi, Head of Department for Modern and Contemporary Middle Eastern Art at Bonhams.

“There is a demand for Western art from all over the world,” said economist Don Thompson in a video for Artsy. “Most of our buyers are young Chinese collectors who are Western educated,” added Xin Li, Deputy Chairman of Christie’s Asia, in the same video.

Ai Weiwei is undeniably a posterchild of modern art, producing large-scale installations in marble, steel, tea and glass that comment on creative freedom, censorship and human rights

But, are we seeing a sea shift in the new masters of today? Are artists from the Middle East or Asia beginning to be recognised with the same intensity as their European and North American counterparts?

Omar El-Nagdi is an Egyptian painter, born in 1931 and considered by some to be the nation's most important living artist. His piece Sarajevo, thought to bear similarities to Picasso’s Guernica in its wrenching depiction of war, tripled on estimates during a Christie’s auction in Dubai and sold for US$1.15m to an anonymous Lebanese private collector.

Other artists broke records that day. Mahmoud Saïd’s Le Nil à El Derr, painted in 1933, sold for US$701,000 – well clear of its $250,000 estimate.

In April this year Bonhams became the first international auction house to hold an exclusively Lebanese art sale. Like Christie’s, it saw Middle Eastern artworks clearing their estimates with feet to spare. The Portrait of Mrs Alexander Morten by Lebanese-American Kahlil Gibran, which remained unseen for 100 years and was the first painting by the poet/artist ever to be auctioned, sold for almost ten times its original estimate of £20,000.

Ayman Baalbaki's The Beirut City Centre Egg
Ayman Baalbaki's 'The Beirut City Centre Egg', a depiction of a partially destroyed cinema complex built in the Brutalist styleImage: Detail from 'The Beirut City Centre Egg'

It is not just Middle Eastern artists that are gaining prominence on a global platform. Ai Weiwei, who is Chinese, is undeniably a posterchild of modern art. He produces large-scale installations in marble, steel, tea and glass that comment on creative freedom, censorship and human rights.

His porcelain sunflower seeds sold at Sotheby's in New York for $782,000 in 2012.

Financial interest in the art world, where investors follow trends rather than emotions, has meant that there has been a certain homogeny among pieces that go up for auction. However, as artists like Ai Weiwei and countries such as Lebanon and Egypt grow on a global level, the domain of the ultra-famous Western artist could be under question.

For Sagharchi, it is the established political regions that are starting to make their presence felt.

“Historically marginalized but now settled areas like the Gulf are experiencing a new artistic consciousness,” he says.

“Middle Eastern institutions that used to spend US$60-100m on a Picasso or Bacon as a form of prestige we now see wanting to put their local artists on a pedestal. And when that sinks in? Sales will follow suit.”