Spanning 40 countries, the Sotheby’s brand has for centuries decorated its spaces and salesrooms with art, artifacts and relics once in possession of well-known figures throughout the ages.
As the fourth oldest auction house in continuous operation, it had much to celebrate by the end of 2007, recording an unprecedented 51% jump in sales from $3.66 billion to $6.2 billion between 2006 and 2007. But things soon changed in the wake of the economic crisis. Sotheby’s ended 2008 with consolidated sales of $5.3 billion—a drop of 14.5%. By 2011, recovery was in sight, thanks to the booming market in China and the boom of digitalization, complementing auction and private sale commission revenue.
It has been a roller coaster. According to the European Fine Art Foundation, the industry thrived as global art sales peaked at $68.2 billion in 2014. By 2016 however, UBS and consulting firm Art Economic reported a sales drop of 11% to $55.6 billion. Sotheby’s wasn’t spared and saw its property sales drop 27% from 2015 to $4.9 billion in 2016.
Despite rocky times, the Middle East market continues to grow. In the last five years, the number of U.A.E. participants in Sotheby’s global sales has risen by 157%.
“I have been personally coming to the region for about 25 years, mainly visiting clients but also holding exhibitions in hotels”, explains David Bennett, World Chairman of Sotheby’s International Jewelry Division.
“The Middle East became of great importance after the first oil crisis in the early 1970s, where, in terms of influence, the great jewel houses such as Cartier and Van Cleef had completely transformed to meet this new taste; a distinctive one that loved colored gemstones and diamonds.”
Bennett, known by the alias “100-carat man” for auctioning record sales of seven 100-carat diamonds, believes jewelry as a collective field is still in its infancy, with prospective clients and collectors in constant need of education.
“The more you know about something, the more interesting it becomes. I find it gratifying how interested Middle Eastern clients are eager to learn about jewelry,” he says.
In 1989, he co-authored “Understanding Jewellery” with colleague and fellow jewel aficionado Daniela Mascetti. “We wrote our first book together at a time when there were no coffee books on the subject matter. There were about five books on jewels, but they were serious, academic texts with no illustrations. We filled that gap with our book, pairing up academic research and images to form a visual guide of jewelry,” Mascetti reminisces. “The book serves primarily as an educational tool and is used by collectors to this day.”
In a bid to satisfy the burgeoning the interest of Middle Eastern collectors, their contributions and many years traveling to and from the region paid off. “There has been a significant rise in collecting and art activities like fairs in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah,” explains Edward Gibbs, Chairman Head of Department Middle East and India. “Since 1995, Middle Eastern collectors participating in our worldwide jewelry auctions have made purchases worth over $6 billion—$416 million in 2016 alone.”
[caption id="attachment_26203" align="alignright" width="278"] Edward Gibbs[/caption]
While commercial galleries like the Al Serkal Avenue in Dubai have exponentially grown their infrastructure, the advent of younger buyers looking to pursue their own collecting venture has also instigated setting up shop in the region.
“New buyers from the Middle East tend to be younger and wealthier in the point of entry than they were 10 or 20 years ago. There is a significant focus on the younger age bracket,” Gibbs maintains.
Sotheby’s has welcomed this rise in engagement by creating in-house apps – they have acquired more than a million followers on social media in the last five years, and the amount spent by Middle Eastern bidders online has risen by 47%.
Although both Christie’s and Sotheby’s have made their presence in the region known in recent decades, the former established their branch in Dubai back in 2003. Sotheby’s held back, waiting to find the perfect location.
The opening of their DIFC office during Dubai Art Week in March 2017 featured the world’s largest pink diamond, the Pink Star, and the world’s most expensive earrings, Apollo and Artemis.
Numerous gallery tours and educational events have followed, and while the established clientele flock to attend, new trends are being revealed. “The recent Cecil Beaton exhibition attracted a whole new audience,” says Gibbs. They also signed a memorandum of understanding with Sheikha Manal Al Maktoum and her foundation to promote art and culture among the Emirati population.
As a result, Sotheby’s has organized art quiz nights, mock auctions, jewelry master classes and children’s art workshops. “Sotheby’s is so much more than auctions and private sales,” he affirms.
The auction house has a solid educational base with big plans in store for the Gulf. In the 1970s, it set up the Sotheby’s Institute of Art in London to educate young cataloguers and hone the skills necessary for aspiring specialists. The effort gathered traction and in the 1980s it entered a partnership with the University of Manchester enabling individuals to study at Sotheby’s and graduate with a university degree.
The MA in Art Business and MA in Contemporary Arts are among two of the most sought-after courses.
“There is a growing interest, a thirst and hunger, from applicants in the Middle East, and they are heavily subscribed to these courses,” Gibbs reassures. While events like Sharjah Biennial offer educational panels and programs that run alongside the exhibition, there are currently no established educational colleges in the U.A.E. specifically offering courses on art history.
“We feel this is a vacuum we can fill,” says Gibbs. “I gave a lecture on collecting Middle Eastern art to a group of royal ladies at the Emirate Palace in Abu Dhabi as part of an educational day. We have also done lectures for the Sheikha Manal Foundation and shall continue to do more of those; we are meeting the demand.”
Online catalogues have rendered education and communication between auction house and art enthusiasts simpler than ever before. “When I started in the early 1970s, I don’t think there was ever a phone bidder, it must have happened 10 years later,” Bennett remembers.
“The scene has changed from people strictly bidding from within the room to the vast majority of people doing so through the Internet or smartphone.”
While last year also saw Middle Eastern clients spend more than $416 million on jewelry auctions, 38% of these purchases came from first time buyers.
This category continues to occupy the top spot in terms of pure expenditure, closely followed by impressionist and contemporary art. While watches maintain a significant portion of purchases—worth an estimated $1 billion since 1995—thirst for books and scriptures of Middle Eastern origin shouldn’t be underestimated.
“There has been a massive uptick in the number of bidders in arts of the Islamic world in recent years. We have seen an increase of 45% in the last year alone, of which 15% of bidders are completely new to Sotheby’s and hadn’t previously participated in other categories,” explains Gibbs.
[caption id="attachment_26204" align="alignright" width="273"] The Mamluk glass bucket[/caption]
The importance of education is clear. As someone who has held an appreciation of art since early adolescence, Gibbs views the role of Sotheby’s young collectors club as a determining factor for development.
“It’s called 1744. It defines the year Sotheby’s was founded and the age range of the collecting club. We have one major collector in his 20s and run a working arts summer program for young people interested in either working for Sotheby’s or beginning to collect.”
While the median age of Middle Eastern art collectors is lower in comparison to other regions, the popularity of Islamic art, particularly classic, has intrigued relatively younger individuals to embark on a collecting spree. As older generations gradually opt to sell their collections and younger collectors show keen interest, new tastes will unequivocally emerge.
“In the early 1980s, people would absolutely go for brand new sets, but we have noticed the market is more aware of vintage, or period pieces,” says Mascetti. “Collectors have developed a more discerning taste for special, rare and irreplaceable items.”