Passion Collecting: Investing in Middle Eastern Modern art

Words by
Anna Brady

7th December 2017

As major international museums look to expand their collections of Modern art from the Middle East, now is the time to invest in the art form at auction

As a collecting field, Middle Eastern Modern art is still a relatively untapped seam. It is only recently that the international art market and major museum collections have shown more interest with museums expanding 
their collections of Middle Eastern artists — notably in Tate Modern’s new Switch House extension in London — and major artist monographs appearing for the first time. Only this year, the first catalogue raisonné was published on Egyptian Modernist Mahmoud Sa’id and in October last year his 1927 painting 
L’île Heureuse (Happy Isle) sold for £1.2m at Bonhams in London, the highest price for a Middle Eastern artist outside the region.

The market has risen from almost nothing in a decade. Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Bonhams all hold dedicated Middle Eastern Modern and Contemporary art sales in London (and Christie’s in Dubai), selling to a largely Middle Eastern but internationally based clientele. Yet prices still lag behind those for Western artists. The auction record for a Middle Eastern artist is $2.8m for Iranian sculptor Parviz Tanavoli’s The Wall (Oh Persepolis), set at Christie’s Dubai in 2008. Compare that, for instance, with a 1982 skull painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat, which sold for $110.5m at Sotheby’s New York in May. A few Middle Eastern artists do make it into general Post War and Contemporary sales, such as Iranian painter Ali Banisadr, but they are still in the minority.

Mahmoud Said painting
Mahmoud Sa'id's L’île Heureuse

Mahmoud Sa'id's L’île Heureuse

Egypt, Lebanon and, most prominently, Iran; Tehran’s gallery scene is vibrant and the country’s relative political stability means its art history is better documented. Specialist auctions are dominated by better known 20th-century Modernists and artists working today such as Tanavoli. “Prices have risen exponentially for the Modernists, there’s almost an infinite pool of artists to explore,” says Sotheby’s specialist Ashkan Baghestani. Bonhams’ Nima Sagharchi agrees: “Generally the best market is for Modern art, from the post-war to the 1970s and 1980s.” Interest tends to be for a handful of artists, usually figurative and neo-traditional in style, as collectors still prefer narrative and folk-inspired art to abstract works. “In Iran, for example,” says Sagharchi, “the focus has been on Charles Hossein Zenderoudi, Parvis Tanavoli and artists from the neo-traditionalist Saqqakhaneh movement. In Egypt, it’s Mahmoud Sa’id and in Iraq it’s Dia Azzawi and Jewad Selim.”

Other artists most in demand include the Egyptian painter Hussein Bicar (whose Nubian House sold at Bonhams in 2016 for £319,00, a record for a modern Arab painting sold in London), Iranian Monir Farmanfarmaian, known for her glittering mirror works, and Shafic Abboud from Lebanon, whose 1979 painting Les Années de l’Oiseau sold for $391,500 at Christie’s Dubai in 2016. Baghestani is also an admirer of Iraqi art although, due to the country’s current conflict, it is harder to find. Sagharchi thinks Jewad Selim, father of Iraqi Modernism, is one to watch; his works achieve strong prices, although his history is largely unknown thanks to the country’s war-torn past.

Female artists are growing in prominence too, such as Turkish artist Fahrelnissa Zeid, currently the subject of a retrospective at Tate Modern. In April, Sotheby’s sold Zeid’s monumental Towards a Sky (1953) for £992,750. Another is Lebanese artist Saloua Raouda Choucair, subject of a Tate retrospective in 2013. Choucair died earlier this year, and shortly after her sculpture Interform sold for £275,000 at Bonhams. Last year, Bonhams held its first sale devoted to Lebanese art. “Even though many of the artists were well-established in Lebanon and elsewhere, this was the first time many of them had come to the market,” says Sagharchi. The top lot was Portrait of Mrs Alexander Morten by Kahlil Gibran, the first of his works ever to be auctioned. It sold for £182,500 (10 times more than its estimate) to a Lebanese institution.

Kahil Gibran painting
Kahlil Gibran's Portrait of Mrs Alexander Morten

Kahlil Gibran's Portrait of Mrs Alexander Morten

“Prices are not soaring, but rising steadily, It’s a healthy growth,” says Baghestani. “Modernists are still very undervalued, the market has much room to grow. If these artists had been exhibited outside the region in their lifetime, they would be defined as international not Middle Eastern, and their price point would be much higher. Fahrelnissa Zeid, for example, is still very undervalued.”

For the would-be collector, self-education is key, concludes Sagharchi. “When the market was taking off, a lot of people were buying purely on a stylistic basis. They weren’t examining who the artists were, their place in the art history of the region, who they were working with or where. Collectors have now educated themselves so that they are not buying mainly on decorative terms.”