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Surprise? Iranian Contemporary Art Leads Market

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A rule of thumb: Work by any artist you have ever heard of is probably quite expensive and likely out of your price range. The search for good and not astronomically priced original artwork may lead some prospective collectors to art colleges' senior shows, to sidewalk art fairs and flea markets, to out-of-the-way auctions or art galleries, to the work of artists at the second tier of some major movement or to hunt through decades-old reviews of artists who seemingly have dropped off the radar but might be primed for a comeback. It might also take you to work by artists in or from foreign countries. The "globalization" of the art market has produced a large supply of new work by artists in China, India, Africa, South America and the Middle East. In many cases, the number of new artists has far outstripped the volume of new collectors in these countries, creating the opportunity for reasonable prices until the collectors catch up.

Let's focus on the Middle East, particularly Iran, one of the most populous countries in the region and the one that produces by far the largest number of artists. While much of the world views Iran in terms of its nuclear ambitions, its undeclared sponsorship of terrorist organizations and its home-grown dissident movement, the art world is seeing the recent emergence of a scores of Iranian visual artists on the international scene whose prices are expected to rise considerably over the next five to 10 years. Theirs is not an art of jihadic propaganda - no portraits of mullahs and ayatollahs, no pictures of conquering soldiers (Iran is not North Korea after all) - but an art, produced by Iranians, both living in Iran and in other countries, which reflects many of the same interests and concerns of artists in the West and elsewhere. In short, it is artwork that is competing increasingly for attention on the world stage.

Thirty years ago, the term "Iranian student" was synonymous with hostage-taker, and selling weapons surreptitiously to "moderates" in the Iranian government got the Reagan Administration in trouble. However, since the disputed presidential elections in June of 2009 the rest of the world has seen a forward-looking middle class and a freedom-seeking youth culture that was always there but hidden by the official rhetoric. These artists may be putting their nation's best foot forward.

"The Iranian public, especially artists, is very connected with the rest of the world through traveling and particularly through the Internet," said video artist Shoja Azari, who lives in Manhattan. "Iranians are the greatest number of bloggers in the world. The uprising that took place last June after the elections in Iran was a FaceBook and Twitter revolution." That view was seconded by Farbod Dowlatshahi, an Iranian retired oil refinery builder and art collector (1,891 and counting paintings, sculptures, installations and videos) currently living in Dubai, who noted that "for 30 years, the only message that came out of Iran was negative. Because of the current political situation, the only positive message coming out of Iran is the young people. The younger artists are promoting a very positive future."

Signs of the growing interest in contemporary Iranian art are unmistakable. In the summer of 2009, the Chelsea Art Museum in New York City exhibited 210 artworks (paintings, sculptures, photography, video and installation pieces) by 56 contemporary Iranian Artists in a show called "Iran Inside Out." Also last summer, a show of artwork by young contemporary artists in Tehran were featured at London's Asia House and, in 2008, the Missoula Art Museum in Montana held an exhibition of contemporary photography from Iran ("Persian Visions"). A year earlier, a U.S. State Department-sponsored exhibit of younger Iranian artists, titled "Wishes and Dreams," toured nine U.S. cities.

Individual artists have also made an impression. The work of conceptual artist Mahmoud Bakhshi Moakhar (b. 1977), who won last year's inaugural Magic of Persia prize - awarded annually to an emerging Iranian artist by the London-based foundation Magic of Persia - is being exhibited currently at the Saatchi Gallery in London. Y.Z. Kami, who was born in Tehran in 1956 and currently lives in the U.S., had his work featured at the Istanbul Biennial (2005), Museum of Modern Art (2006) and the Venice Biennale (2007). With works already in the collections of the Whitney Museum, the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum, he is represented by the Gagosian Gallery in Manhattan, which is as A-list as an artist can get. Shirin Neshat, a filmmaker and photographer born in 1957 in Qasvin and living in New York City with her husband Shoja Azari, has had her work acquired by the Tate Gallery in London and the Guggenheim and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. She won the international award at the 1999 Venice Biennale for her video work and the Silver Lion in 2009 at the Venice Film Festival for her film "Women without Men." She has been represented by New York's Barbara Gladstone Gallery since 2000. Back in 2000, Neshat's still images sold for $2,000-3,000 but have reached $200,000 at the secondary market, according to one of the gallery's directors, Max Falkenstein.

Many other Iranian artists have earned plaudits and enthusiastic buyers but continue to be represented by art galleries that feature contemporary Middle Eastern art, such as LTMH Gallery in New York City (www.ltmhgallery.com), as well as Rose Issa Projects (www.roseissa.com), Waterhouse & Dodd (www.waterhousedodd.com), Berardi and Sagharchi Projects (www.artnet.com/gallery/425718123/berardi-and-sagharchi-projects-ltd.html) and Osborne Samuel Gallery (www.osbornesamuel.com) in London.

The fourth annual art fair, Art Dubai, took place this past March, featuring 70 galleries from 30 countries and a variety of art exhibits. Dubai opened its first contemporary art museum in 2009 (Tehran's Museum of Contemporary Art opened in 1977), and the Guggenheim is expected to open its Abu Dhabi branch in 2012.

Perhaps nothing, however, has demonstrated the desirability of Iranian and other Middle Eastern contemporary art more than the auctions that have taken place in Dubai and Qatar. Christie's was the first international auction house on the scene, holding its first sale in Dubai in 2006, followed by Sotheby's (in Doha, Qatar) and Phillips de Pury (in London) in 2009, and these have become twice-annual events. "This is the wealthiest area in the world," said Lina Lazaar, a contemporary art specialist at Sotheby's who arranges the auction house's sales. "When the collecting spirit and habit has matured, you can expect prices to jump."

And there lies the opportunity for buyers right now. Ordinarily, one wouldn't want to get into a bidding war with people of unimaginable wealth, but many of the richest people in the Middle East are not yet collectors of the contemporary artists in their midst. "Traditionally, Iranians have bought carpets as investment," said Mamak Nourbakhsh, owner of Tehran's Gallery Mamak. "Today we see many rich Iranians buying artwork and in rather large numbers. Indeed, this has already led to higher prices for the works of many artists and has affected the art market here in general."

For the past three years, London's Waterhouse & Dodd Gallery has arranged an annual survey of contemporary Middle Eastern contemporary art in its gallery, as well as created mini-shows in its booths at art fairs in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, in order to spur greater interest in collecting this art. At present, owner Ray Waterhouse claimed, the greatest potential for growth in buying "is still in the Middle East. We have sold many photographs and oils up to a value of $100,000 in the West, but above that price the collectors tend to be Middle Eastern buyers in the Middle East or living in the West." Becoming a patron of the arts has developed considerable cachet among the rich in this part of the world, for it is "the desire of locals to collect and to be seen collecting." He noted that he has given talks in Kuwait, Abu Dhabi and Dubai on how to build a collection, and one of those talks was to the crown princess of Abu Dhabi ("and 23 princesses in her family").

Lazaar noted that Middle Eastern collectors have looked to Western institutions, such as the auction houses, and collectors to signal which of their artists are of greatest value and importance. "The auction houses have filtered the information and reduced it to two sales a year," she said. "Because no institutions did this type of job until a few years ago, we're doing a lot of the curating job that a museum would do." She added that Iranian and other Middle Eastern art galleries have used the auction houses' catalogues as a way to educate their buyers, because of the critical essays in them. Back home, the University of London also made a purchase of 200 catalogues from one sale for one of its Middle Eastern art courses.
Prices for works by contemporary Iranian artists have risen sharply in the past decade. Leila Taghinia-Milani Heller, an Iranian art gallery owner in Manhattan, noted that prices for Shoja Azari's work has risen from $15,000 in 2007 to "upwards of $40,000" now, while Detroit-based Shiva Ahmadi's paintings were priced as low as $800 in 2004 and now reach $18,000. Rose Issa, an Iranian gallery owner in London, noted that "in 2002, paintings by Farhad Moshiri sold for £1,000 - today they sell for one hundred times this initial price. Photographs by Shadi Ghadirian that were purchased in 2000 for £100 now run into the tens of thousands, as do the large panels by Chant Avedissian. Similarly, the young Lebanese artist Ayman Baalbaki's prices have tripled in the last three years. Investors would rarely achieve such returns on the stock market." Farbod Dowlatshahi stated that when he began collecting the paintings of Charles Hossein Zenderoudi in 2006, the prices ("ridiculously low") were €10,000; the most recent work he purchased by the artist, in 2007, was for €500,000. A painting by another artist he has collected in depth, Rokni Haerizadeh, cost $7,000 in 2006, far less than the $75,000 he spent this past March at Art Dubai.

With these auctions, price records are being set regularly: In October 2009 at Sotheby's sale in Doha, Y.Z. Kami's painting "Blue Dome I" earned £73,250, a record for the artist, beating the previous record of £39,650; Ramin Haerizadeh's painting "Election is Sh...t!" earned £12,500, a new record surpassing the old one of £8,125; Farhad Ahrarnia's mixed media on canvas "The Flesh of Words" brought £15,000, bypassing the previous record of £5,000.
The auctions certainly are showing the potential. In May of 2009, at the height of the worldwide recession, Christie's sale in Dubai resulted in many lots matching and exceeding estimates, including Charles Hossein Zenderoudi's painting "Wav + Wav + VE" ($206,500, estimate $150,000-200,000), Sohrab Sepehri's untitled painting from his "Tree" series ($182,500, estimate $150,000-200,000), an untitled painting by Mohammed Ehsai ($152,500, estimate $80,000-120,000), Abolghassem Saidi's triptych painting "Trees" ($146,500, estimate $80,000-110,000), Mohammed Ehsai's painting "A Bunch of Daffodils" ($140,500, estimate $120,000-180,000) and Afshin Pirhashemi's photography-based painting from his "X Series" ($122,500, estimate $40,000-60,000). Saidi's $146,500 set an auction record for the artist.

Although prices are increasing, there still remains a long way to go before they top off. Lazaar stated that, although Sotheby's will continue to hold its semi-annual Arab and Iranian Art sales, the auction house plans to incorporate the work of some of the top Middle Eastern artists into its regular contemporary art sales, an acknowledgment that these artists are no longer of regional interest primarily.

Having Iranian artists names mentioned in the same breath as other internationally known contemporary artists in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere is the goal of the galleries and auction houses, and that appears to be the path on which the art market is moving. Ali Y Khadra, the Dubai-based publisher of the art publication Arab Magazine, for instance, noted that his sizeable collection includes pieces by contemporary Western artists, such as "Sylvie Fleurie, Julian Opie, Aaron Young, Anselm Reyle, Jeff Koons and Karl Lagerfeld, to name a few." However, "around 30 percent of my art collection consists of contemporary Iranian artworks. It mostly includes paintings, but I also have sculptures, photographs and videos. The collection comprises works by Parviz Tanavoli, the Haerizadeh brothers, Farhad Ahrania, Reza Derakshani, Reza Aramesh, Nicky Nodjoumi, Sadegh Tirafkan, Fereydoun Ave, Farideh Lashai and many others."

Heller and Issa both see American and European collectors as fertile ground for sales and, in a realm in which Western approval influences buying decisions of Arab world art collectors, price rises in the West will lead to more heated competition for artworks in the Middle East.