Islamic Art sales have risen once again since the economic downturn a couple of years back, as many institutions have sought to expand their collections. The opening of new museums and the arrival of new private collectors has helped to drive the market. Sotheby’s has been at the fore-front setting an auction record for an Islamic work of art with the sale of the Shahnameh, which sold for QR42 million in April 2012. Benedict Carter, Deputy Director, Sotheby’s Middle East and Indian Department talks to Qatar Today about his appreciation of Islamic Art and how Sotheby’s has fostered it.
What kind of work are you involved in at Sotheby’s and can you tell us more about ‘A Princely Collection’ and your experience working on Arts of the Islamic World?
As a specialist in the Middle East and India department, I work specifically with works of art from the Islamic World, and in putting together our biannual sales of ‘Arts of the Islamic World’. These sales featured a broad range of art, from North African Qur’an manuscripts all the way to Sri Lankan ivory caskets, and encompassing along the way almost 1,400 years of every kind of decorative art produced in lands under Islamic patronage, from Spain to China. Our sale catalogues include manuscripts, ceramics, weaponry, glass and metalwork, to name only a few of the media that artists and craftsmen executed in the many Muslim countries rich in artistic culture. My specific role is varied; first we must gather pieces for the sale which includes some travel and many valuation appointments at our New Bond Street offices in London. Then we research the selection and set about cataloguing and producing our catalogue. After this we may present highlights in travelling exhibitions, and finally we will have the auction in London, some four to five months after we begin the process.
‘A Princely Collection’ was a privately owned collection of Arts of the Islamic World with a strong Persian flavour that had been built up over the second half of the twentieth century. It was a broad-ranging selection of top quality manuscripts and objects, the highlights including a leaf from the so-called ‘Blue Qur’an’, an exceptional Qur’an executed in gold on dyed blue vellum, which, when complete, must have been one of the most luxurious manuscripts in the world. The sale exceeded its high estimate, realising over QR39 million, reflecting the strong market demand for rare and remarkable works of art with a good provenance.
Do you think the Islamic Art scenario has perked up in the recent years or has this interest been ongoing from long back?
2010 and 2011 were Sotheby’s’ most successful years for sales of Islamic Art, but apart from a slightly slower year in 2009, sales have generally been growing throughout the 2000s, rising initially in the mid-90s. During this period, many institutions have sought to expand their collections and the opening of new museums and the arrival of new private collectors have driven the market to the state it is in today. The last decade has seen an upsurge in awareness of the achievements of the Muslim World, and this is reflected in the many museum exhibitions that are curated (for example the Hajj exhibition which opens this month at the British Museum) and the refurbishment of major museum collections such as the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Louvre.
What are the current trends of interest in the Middle East Art market?
There is a growing interest in Arts from the Islamic world in the Middle East and North African region, with various countries keen to repatriate works of art which were originally produced by their country’s artists and craftsmen. New museums have opened and others are planned to open in the coming years, and there is also an increase in the number of private collectors active in the region. Modern and contemporary art from the Middle East, North Africa and Iran is also a genre with an increasing interest, and Sotheby’s held its inaugural auction of this material in Doha in 2009, followed by a calligraphy-themed sale, ‘Hurouf - The Art of the Word’, in December 2010, which included a mix of Islamic manuscripts and modern and contemporary artists’ work.
Even with such rich heritage in the art community do you think there is a lack of understanding or appreciation of art here? How do you foster a society that appreciates art?
A museum-going public is not something that can be created overnight, and the appreciation of art as a cultural tradition is something which can only be fostered over many years, through educational programmes, schooling, and the consistent curating of museum exhibitions. The new Katara cultural village is a step forward in this educational process, and will help to spread the awareness of art to the broadest possible reach.
How do corporate entities get involved in auctions or art collections and what work do you do for them?
Sotheby’s works with corporations on a number of different fronts. Sotheby’s Corporate Art services include the preparation of appraisal reports, advice on acquisitions and deaccessions, management of all aspects of the consignment, and help in developing arts-management strategies for several of the world’s leading corporations. Sotheby’s has handled the majority of corporate collections to come to market. In addition, the company has presided over the sale of some of the most highly valued corporate collections to be sold at auction, such as the British Rail Pension Fund in 1989 (QR360 million). In March 2010 Sotheby’s was entrusted with the sale of the BAT ‘Artventure’ Collection, the largest collection of Contemporary art ever to have come to auction in the Netherlands, which doubled its estimate with a sales total over QR142 million. In February 2010 in London, Sotheby’s sold, on behalf of Commerzbank, Giacometti’s L’homme qui marche I for QR379 million – the highest amount ever achieved for a corporation through the auction sale of art from its holdings, a sum in this case represented by the sale of just one work of art.
What are the prospects of investing in art?
This market has been on an upward trajectory for a number of years, so we can expect there to be an increased interest as a result. The market has become more selective, and whilst the demand is there for the best pieces which will be fought over by institutions and private collectors alike, there is less enthusiasm for works that are not quite in the top echelon of quality. Moreover, the financial position of any given country is reflected in the spending of its collectors and institutions, and given that a particular country’s buyers commonly collect pieces from their own cultural heritage, this can affect the market demand, and subsequent value of an object. The Islamic Art market remains rather a specialised field, and the majority of buyers that participate are passionate collectors whose collections are dictated by their personal taste and deep knowledge of the subject.
Can you tell us more about the Qatari art scene and how the museums help create a market here?
Certainly the opening of both the Museum of Islamic Art and Mathaf, the Arab Museum of Modern Art, in Doha have been instrumental in the promotion of art originating from the Middle East and further afield. Both museums house excellent collections, and seek to promote cultural dialogue via their educational programmes. The Museum of Islamic Art has an exceptional collection of the world’s rarest and most beautiful pieces of Islamic Art.
What steered your interest to art? And how has the journey been so far?
Whilst I have always been interested in art in general, The arts of the Islamic World was never something we touched at school, and not really anything I gave much thought to when studying Renaissance art in Florence after leaving school. It was only when I arrived at Bristol University and began to study Arabic that my interest was sparked. Various trips to North Africa and the Middle East led to studying at the University of Jordan, and later in Alexandria, by which time I was pretty much hooked on the Muslim World and its culture.