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Megabucks sex up Middle East art explosion

By Barry Neild for CNN
  • Middle Eastern art scene has expanded over past decade say experts
  • In the driving seat are wealthy patrons and new museums
  • Auction houses say the Middle East art market is worth millions
  • One patron says it is about the region's maturing relationship with its wealth

(CNN) -- It's not just oil they talk about in the Middle East, these days. With millions of the region's dollars being spent in an explosion of art collecting, they could just as easily be talking about oil paintings.

This weekend, hundreds of people are expected to traipse through Abu Dhabi's Emirates Palace hotel to visit the Gulf state's second ever art fair; a lavish display of contemporary art from across the Middle East and further afield.

The fair is viewed by some as Abu Dhabi's attempt to push its cultural credentials ahead of the inauguration of Saadiyat Island -- a vast offshore development that will house offshoots of the prestigious Guggenheim and Louvre museums.

For many it also represents a wider trend that sees the Middle East coming of age as a global powerhouse of art patronage; a rite of passage that is also fueling a scramble by auction houses for a share of the cash.

What's happened now is that we've realized that cars, and big houses and expensive handbags are one thing, but art is different.
--Dubai gallery owner Rami Farook

"There have been people collecting from the region for many years, but there has been a perfect storm happening in the last decade," says Antonia Carver, director of Art Dubai, the region's largest cultural expo.

At the eye of the storm, she says, are the Gulf states like Abu Dhabi and Qatar -- which have been following Dubai's lead with massive expansion programs and ostentatious shows of wealth -- and cities such as Beirut and Cairo.

These have seen a sharp increase in sales, not only of works from Middle Eastern artists but of contemporary and classical pieces by international players, with much of the money coming from individuals and institutions within the region.

"There is a small but rapidly growing core of people in the Middle East and North African region who are increasingly interested in art," says, Jonathan Massey, a director at auction house Sotheby's, which opened an office in Doha, Qatar in 2009.

Sotheby's says sales at Arts of the Islamic World auctions totaled $60.5 million this year compared with $10.9 million in 2005. Rival auctioneer Christie's says its Dubai operation has shifted $200 million-worth of art over the past five years.

"Obviously London, New York and Hong Kong are still the leading selling centers, but the Middle East is expanding at the quickest rate," Michael Jeha, managing director for Christie's Middle East, told CNN.

Charles Pocock, managing director of Abu Dhabi gallery Meem says while interest in Middle Eastern art waned in the 80s when Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was a key patron, things are booming once more.

And, he says, whereas the art market in many Middle Eastern countries is primarily concerned with indigenous work, a lack of home-grown movements in the wealthy Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) bloc states -- Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates -- means buyers are broadening horizons.

"Egyptians buy Egyptian art, Turks buy Turkish art and so on, but for GCC countries it's different," Pocock told CNN. "In the Gulf states, there is not a recognized contemporary art movement, so they have been forced to open their borders and look elsewhere."

While many Gulf collectors are primarily interested in pieces from other Arabic and Middle Eastern cultures, Pocock says some are also interesting in avant-garde modern artists such as shark pickler Damian Hirst and king of kitsch Jeff Koons.

Adds Art Dubai's Antonia Carver: "People are beginning to look less at where the artist comes from and more at a particular aesthetic or interesting approach from the artist, so we're doing away with those geographical labels that used to predominate."

So who are these Middle East super-patrons that are pouring their money into the art market? Industry experts say chief among them are new museums including the Guggenheim; the Louvre; and Qatar's soon-to-open Museum of Modern Arab Art.

Then there are the region's wealthy royals, including Qatar's Sheikh Hassan bin Mohammed bin Ali Al Thani and Sharjah's Sheikh Sultan bin Saud Al Qassemi. Other big names are Iranian-born financier Mohammed Afkhami, property magnate Farhad Farjam and UAE Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash.

And why are they spending their money on art?

Says Pocock: "For some, in particular some Iranian collectors, spending large amounts on art is a way of gaining acceptance. Immaterial of where you come from, if you build a collection and establish a gallery, you become somebody."

Rami Farook is a young entrepreneur-turned-art connoisseur whose 200-piece private collection gets wall space in his Dubai-based Traffic gallery. He says he became a patron after a light bulb moment in London's Serpentine gallery in 2007.

"There was a show curated by Damien Hirst," he told CNN. "I don't know what happened. I came out of that exhibition and just thought I loved the way everything was placed, and the way the medium and topic spoke ... I guess that's when I started collecting.

Farook says he identifies with a new young breed of Middle Eastern art collector whose interests, he says, shows a more mature relationship with the region's wealth.

"What's happened now is that we've realized that cars, and big houses and expensive handbags are one thing, but art is different. It's more emotional, more social and even more sexual."