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Islamic art - monitoring the market.

April is one of the most important months in the Islamic art collector's calendar, for it is now that the dealers, private collectors and representatives from museums around the world, gather together in London for the twice annual Islamic art sales at the auction houses of Christie's and Sothebys. Pat Lancaster talked to the experts about current market trends.

ALTHOUGH THERE ARE examples of Islamic art dating back many hundreds of years it is still regarded as a relatively new addition to the conventional art scene in some quarters. Long prized by European collectors who picked up a variety of exquisite pieces on their travels, it was not until the 1970s that the market really took off in an international sense. The increase in its popularity was directly in line with the oil price boom. The oil rich Arabs entered the market and proved themselves a force to be reckoned with. Private collections were being established around the Gulf states and buyers did not care how much they had to pay for a really special addition. Suddenly, Islamic art was entering a different realm of popularity.

The changes were observed with about equal measures of enthusiasm and horror but always with interest. Because of the relatively small size of the market, in relation to, say, paintings or furniture, both in the number of sales and the overall amount a sale might realise, the market retained an exciting and often unpredictable quality. Individual pieces might fail to realise their reserve price or go spiralling way above, it was impossible to predict. A trend could be established almost overnight.

During this boom period a number of people, mainly Arabs, are known to have lost large amounts of money. As happens in any lucrative market, unscrupulous people out to make a quick financial killing prey upon the unwise and the unwary. There were numerous stories of large-scale rip-offs, some of which were undoubtedly true. A long established London dealer witnessed events at this time with some incredulity. "The Arabs were often very gullible ... Dealers only really started to sell poor quality at exorbitant prices when they saw the Arabs were prepared to pay up. With the oil price boom they had instant money and went in for instant spending. Some of them went into collecting Islamic art without knowing the first thing about it. That doesn't happen these days, not with the Arabs, not with anyone."

By the mid-1980s the Islamic art departments of major auction houses in the three main trading cities London, Paris and New York, were among the most lively. There was an almost tangible feeling of excitement when a sale was coming up, a huge buzz of anticipation and activity. Things could change so quickly and did. An example of this occurred around 1985-86, when a single Middle Eastern collector brought about a popularity boom in metalwork. The collector began buying up pieces of 19th century Syrian and Egyptian metalwork inlaid with gold and silver. As soon as his interest was noted every piece of metalwork that turned up at auction was snapped up. Single-handedly one collector had established a new market trend.

Of course trends can work in two directions, while some pieces gained in popularity, the reverse was true of others. Following the fall of the Shah of Iran thousands of Iranians fearful of living under the strict Islamic regime fled the country. To fund their new lives abroad they took with them as much of their art collections as they could carry. The Empress Farah, herself a great collector, had made collecting fashionable and many wealthy Iranians had built up outstanding collections of Persian art. However, as these collections were launched onto an open market a glut situation occurred and prices of exquisite Persian antiquities, manuscripts, ceramics, artefacts of all kinds plummeted.

It took years for such a large amount of Persian art to be absorbed into the market. In 1988 a rare and beautiful pair of silver inland ewers sold for |pounds~4,500 at Christie's, less than half the amount they might have been expected to raise pre-1979. A seller who could have held on to the ewers until 1993 would probably not be disappointed by the price they would realise at Christie's auction today, since Persian art is once again back in favour. In recent years large and important purchases for the Soudavar collection and other Iranian collections have pushed up the prices of 19th century Persian art to levels that would have been very difficult, if not impossible to achieve, in 1987 or so.

It was the speculative nature of the art in the late 1980s that some found so alluring while others, particularly those who had been collectors before the boom, found the process rather unnerving.

In April 1990 Christie's recorded its highest ever sale price for Islamic pottery, with a single piece selling for |pounds~190,000. Just six months earlier a single piece of metalwork had broken all previous records, selling at |pounds~240,000. But by October 1990 there was a noticeable shift in the market, not anything tangible, but still obvious to those in the know. It was an undercurrent more than anything else. On paper the Christie's sale that month was very successful but there was just a feeling that things were not on such solid ground as they had been. "Late 1989, early 1990 was the high point, by October 1990 it was already a bit sticky. There was a noticeable change of atmosphere. Prices were still holding up but they were no longer surging ahead," explained William Robinson. The world economic situation was as much to blame as anything else. The price of oil was down, the Iraqis had invaded Kuwait. It seemed a time for sitting on the fence.

To some it may have been tempting to think the Islamic art boom was over, that it had been nothing more than a flash in the pan. However, the experts reckon that in the long term the slow-down that occurred at this point was probably beneficial. It allowed the market generally to firm up and specific areas of it to achieve a more realistic level.

"Some areas of Islamic art have held up very well indeed," William Robinson of Christies explained. "Others, the areas that were most speculative, have certainly come down." Iznik pottery is probably the best example of this situation. In the late 1980s and early 1990s Iznik pottery was bringing a high price at auction. According to Robinson the number of Iznik pieces sold at Christie's between April 1989 and December 1991 was probably the same amount as in the whole of the preceding 20 or 30 years. News of these sales and the high prices they were achieving hit the headlines with the result that all sorts of collections that no one had previously heard of were coming out of the woodwork. Suddenly people discovered there was more Iznik pottery around than they had originally anticipated. Consequently, the prices began to fall. "In our forthcoming April sale we have one or possibly two very good Iznik dishes, while our sale of October 1990 had nine or ten pieces, excluding private collections that came up for sale of perhaps 30 or 40 individual pieces," Robinson confirmed.

Politics can also affect the markets. One of the most famous collections of Islamic art is that owned by the ruling family of Kuwait, the Al Sabah collection which was displayed in the country's national museum in Kuwait city. During the invasion the collection was loaded onto lorries and carted away. It has now been returned to Kuwait almost intact. Other collectors, however, were not so lucky. One avid Kuwaiti collector lost 600 or 700 pieces of his world class collection. The difference seems to have been that the Al Sabah collection was taken officially, troops were dispatched to the national museum to pack the pieces and remove them and so their outraged owners were able to demand their return, whereas the unfortunate private collector appears to have had his collection removed almost piece by piece by Iraqis who came across it and considered their find a spoil of war. A third very important Kuwaiti collection survived, through being concealed behind a false plaster wall hurriedly erected as news of the invasion reached the owner.

Despite the scams and the speculation, Islamic art did not fall foul of the "trendy" collector tag as many believed it would. Twenty years on from that first flush of popularity which swept this once fairly obscure art form to its current high profile position, Islamic art seems to have weathered the storm. One expert told The Middle East: "When there was a lot of Middle Eastern money about in the 1970s there was a great temptation to jump on the bandwagon, buying and selling at unrealistic prices. I believe there was a stage when some aspects of the market were completely out of control. As a result some people, but a lot less than there could have been, got their fingers burned. The recession caused a slow-down and gave people a chance to breathe, to look around, take stock and get things in their proper perspective. As a result the Islamic art market is now on much more solid ground than it was ten, or even five years ago, maybe not so enervating but more, well, solid."

It is a point of view that draws some sympathy from the auction houses. "Dealers have cut down their buying, this is something we have noticed only over the last year or so. The world economic situation has affected everyone. Everyone's turnover and cash flow is down so they can't go out and buy in the same way they did. People are no longer saying I want my collection to be complete by the end of the year, or even by the end of 1995, all that has now gone, there is more rationale employed," a representative explained.

The main buyers now seem to be, with only one or two exceptions, much the same people as they were five or more years ago. A number of those who left as the speculative side increased have actually returned now they feel prices are back at the levels they should be. They are among the people who would probably say that the depressed international economic climate saved Islamic art from itself.

Over the last five years there have been ups and downs. "People who bought a wide spectrum of items in the late 1980s and sold now would probably be fine, doing reasonably well in fact," the Christie's expert noted. "But, what tends to happen is that because it is such a broad field people pick on certain areas." If in 1988, following the trends, someone had bought Iznik pottery and tried to sell now, it would probably be okay. If, however, they had bought in 1900 and sold now, they could expect to take a considerable loss. There is little doubt, however, that given time, Iznik will bounce back. "Between 1982-86, Iznik rose slowly, it began to rise faster between 1986-88 and went out of control between 1988-90, it will, given time, recover," one expert predicted.

Over the next five years the Islamic art market is expected to show a greater stability than over the last five. There has not been a wildly speculative area for some considerable time. Although there will undoubtedly be areas that will increase in value quickly. It may not be as exciting but as one dealer explained: "Islamic art has come through its teenage years, the next decade will allow it to blossom free of those early pressures but there is no reason to imagine it will ever be staid."
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Title Annotation:Special Feature
Author:Lancaster, Pat
Publication:The Middle East
Date:Apr 1, 1993
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