Q&A: William Lawrie, Head of sales for modern and contemporary Arab and Iranian art at Christie’s auction house in Dubai

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Photo Adel Samara

What are your impressions of Syria’s art scene?
I’ve noticed huge changes in Syria since I first visited in 2001, especially over the past two years. Syria has many more art galleries now and it has developed a very vibrant cultural life. I’ve also noticed that as tourism in Syria has grown, so has the number of foreign collectors visiting its art galleries.

Do you have many Syrian collectors?
We have a few Syrian collectors. On the whole, our sales are split between Arab, Iranian, Western and Turkish collectors. There are many nationalities competing and we’ve had some strong buying from Syrian collectors, but we hope to find more. Now that we have lowered some of our price estimates, it should be a good opportunity for younger collectors to try bidding as well.

When did Christies hold its first Middle Eastern art auction?
We held our first auction in May 2006, but we had been looking into it since mid-2004. We hold auctions twice a year, in April and October.

Which Syrian paintings are going to be at the auction this April in Dubai?
Fateh al-Moudarres’ paintings are headlining the auction, although we will also be selling works by other Syrian artists. Moudarres’ paintings have been highlighted because it’s unusual to have such works at an auction. The collection of art on sale comes from a former German ambassador to Syria called Rudolf Fechter. Interestingly, Fechter was good friends with Moudarres and also one of his biggest fans, so he bought many of his works. He held an exhibition for Moudarres in Berlin in 1971, acting as a patron of Syrian art both here and abroad.

How do you choose the artists you feature in your auctions?
We have two approaches. We take works from the so-called ‘sought after’ artists that have a proven following because it makes perfect sense to offer art that people want to buy, but we also introduce reasonably priced works by other artists who have potential. So we go for a mixture of works by popular artists and attractively priced pieces by artists we haven’t had before.

There are Syrian artists who are in high demand such as Safwan Dahoul – he has many collectors from around the region and abroad who just really like his art. In terms of calligraphy, Mouneer al-Shaarani is very popular, not only with Syrians but also in the Gulf. It’s difficult to generalise about an artist’s appeal, but there are some who have more of a regional and international standing than others.

How has the Arab art market grown?
When I first began to investigate the Middle Eastern art scene in 2005 to see if it was possible to hold an auction, I came across only a few galleries in the capital cities, selling a mixture of 20th-century modern and contemporary art. There is, however, a lot of good art in the Middle East and North Africa region, so we have tried to put it all together and introduce countries to their neighbours’ art. When we first started doing this, we faced opposition from people who didn’t see why art should be taken elsewhere. Very quickly, however, we had Moroccans looking at Syrian art and Lebanese looking at Egyptian art in ways that they had never done before. Let’s say there are 10 art producing countries in the Middle East, when you put them together you create a market 10 times the size and that’s what we did.

How much has the global credit crisis affected the Middle Eastern art market?
The credit crisis affects everyone to some extent. In general, however, I would say that the prices people are prepared to pay for art now are substantially better than three or four years ago. The good thing is that over the past two years the market for Middle Eastern modern and contemporary art has really grown, both in terms of the number of people who are interested in it and the wider knowledge people have about the region’s artists.

Has the number of Arab art collectors in the region increased in recent years?
Yes, I would say so. We have some collectors who have really started buying in the past three or four years. We have been focusing on bringing together a broad spread of art by different artists from the Middle East because it’s actually very difficult to get to see examples of their works together as a whole. In a way, we’re filling the role of established museum collections and I think that when people see different artworks and get to know which particular period of art they like, it encourages them to collect. Off the back off this, we are seeing more collectors as they become more familiar with the Arab art scene.

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