Temperature isn't the only thing heating up in the Middle East -- the Israeli art market is on the rise, attracting international attention. The turnover in the last decade topped $180 million, reaching an all-time high of $36 million in 2007 before the global financial crisis. Though the crisis caused a dip in revenue, signs of recovery were seen starting in the second half of 2009. That said, Israeli art can only demand modest prices, as recent auctions in Tel Aviv and London exemplify. "There's a glass ceiling in Israeli art, unfortunately ... contemporary artists cannot obtain above €50,000-60,000, and I think it will take time for these prices to rise because the market is still developing and opening," says Tel Aviv gallery owner Shiri Benartzi. Currently, Mordechai Ardon holds the Israeli art record with a hammer price of $643,200 for Timepecker.
Israeli auction house Tiroche recently held a two-part Israeli and International Art sale on January 28th and February 4th to great success. Part A saw a 88% sell through rate, and of the 315 lots sold, 199 exceeded their high estimates. The realized prices were also optimistic, with the top three lots all going to Nahum Gutman for $178,250, $149,500 (pictured above), and $126,500. Another notable achievement was realized for Lesser Ury, whose Landscape sold for $74,750 (pictured left), nearly four times its estimate.Part B also reached a similarly high sell through rate, but with much tamer bids.
Still, there would appear to be a huge difference between the auctions held abroad and those in Tel Aviv, at least when comparing Bonhams' luck to Tiroche's. Last year Bonhams teamed up with Tel Aviv auction house Montefiore to sell items at its New Bond Street location. Their latest Israeli Art and Judaica sale on February 29th concluded with less-than-successful results: of 119 lots offered, only 45 sold, mostly within their estimates. The top bid went to modern Israeli artist Reuven Rubin, at £91,250 for Les Oliviers (pictured right). From there prices dropped to £63,650 for Jerusalem wedding by Huvy, then fell to the £30,000 level, and steadily decreased from that point. "The Israeli market is relatively small in numbers compared to the global market," Benartzi explains. "It is estimated to be $15 million a year, which can be just one artwork sold in Sotheby's in New York; but for us, we are a relatively young country and our market is developing rather slowly."
Sotheby's and Christie's also conduct their annual Israeli art sales abroad in New York, where interest in Israeli artists seems to be growing. "We are now in the position where we have Israeli artists who are participating in international exhibitions, like for example the Venice Biennial. We had two artists, one is Sigalit Landau and the other is Yael Bartana representing Poland, which I think was never heard of, and we are getting a lot of attention from the global art market into Israel," says Benartzi.
Benartzi and Aya Shoham (pictured below right), co-owners of Art Station Gallery, have established ArtFI - the country's first ever Fine Art and Finance Conference. As gallery owners, they realized the need to expand the Israeli market and further establish the nation's art economy. "What we wanted to do is open this market to new people and explain to them what the art market is comprised of, who are the people working in it, tell them about the financial power of artworks ... We want to be the opening point for new collectors, to be the place for knowledge for people who are already in the market, and for people who work in this industry to learn about new global tendencies, to learn from the most important professionals in the art world." On the event's roster are art market experts such as Sotheby's Saul Ingram, Senior Director, Head of Business Development in Europe; the Mei/Moses Art Index founder, Prof. Michael Moses; and the CEO of Christie's Israel, Roni Gilat-Baharaff.
In general, the Middle Eastern art market has enjoyed a boost in the last few years, with major collectors and philanthropists establishing new art fairs and museums in places like Dubai, and the recent revolutionary uprisings in several countries placing the media spotlight on the region's artists. But can Israeli art be included in this genre, or does it thrive within its own bubble? "We are not part of the Middle East market because we cannot participate in it, of course," explains Benartzi. "We cannot go to Dubai, and including us in the 'Middle East' is something for foreigners more than how we look at ourselves. But because there is a lot of interest in the Middle East, Israel is gaining from this rather larger interest."
Still, the art market in Israel has a long way to go to catch up to New York and London, and though the prices are rising, Benartzi is still amazed at the high quality artwork you can acquire at prices much lower than worldwide levels. "We want to raise the interest from Israel and outside of Israel. We want to explain to people the benefits of art, and how important it is for us to have a strong culture and art in order to be a stronger nation ... this is one fundamental of society and the strength of the society. You can see the new Tel Aviv Museum [expansion] and the renovation of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, they have unbelievable international collections at worldwide standards. We have a lot to be proud of, and we've reached a point where its time to say we do have a strong art economy, look what we've done here!" That's the goal of the ArtFI conference, which opens March 21st and kicks off Tel Aviv's Art Weekend. "As opposed to everything that happens in Israel, we still have a very strong spirit and we manage to do something big that does not involve anything other than art and this is the biggest achievement," exclaims Benartzi.