How online sales cushioned coronavirus’ blow to Middle East art markets

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The global art market, which has an annual worth of $64.1 billion according to Swiss multinational investment bank UBS, had been growing steadily in recent years until the coronavirus outbreak forced galleries to close, stopping sales and exhibitions. (Supplied)
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Sherazade Mami, a 28-year-old Tunisian professional dancer and performer at the Caracalla dance theatre and a teacher at the Caracalla dance school, practices while wearing a surgical mask on the roof of her apartment building in the suburb of Dekwaneh on the eastern outskirts of Lebanon's capital Beirut on April 4, 2020. (AFP/File Photo)
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Updated 23 January 2021

How online sales cushioned coronavirus’ blow to Middle East art markets

  • COVID-19 containment measures have forced galleries and auction houses to embrace digital technologies 
  • Sotheby’s and Christie’s both report uptick in digital sales, even as coronavirus drives down the market 

DUBAI: Creative industries the world over have suffered under COVID-19 containment measures, which have led to event cancellations and loss of income for artists and venues. Although community-based initiatives in the Middle East have helped art-world professionals weather the worst of the pandemic’s financial blows, the art market itself has been forced to adapt to strange new circumstances.

The global art market, which has an annual worth of $64.1 billion according to Swiss multinational investment bank UBS, had been growing steadily in recent years until the coronavirus outbreak forced galleries to close, stopping sales and exhibitions, and ate into the spending power of collectors.

Indeed, according to “The Impact of COVID-19 on the Gallery Sector” report published by UBS and Art Basel, which surveyed 795 galleries and 360 collectors from the US, UK and Hong Kong, the pandemic cut modern and contemporary gallery sales by 36 percent, with a median decline of 43 percent compared with the first six months of 2019.




With restrictions on movement and lockdowns forcing the closure of their venues, gallerists were forced to come up with new ways to sell their art and promote their artists, including virtual fairs. (Supplied)

The smallest galleries, with a turnover of less than $500,000, reported the biggest decline in sales, with many forced to downsize and lay off staff. The findings appear to mirror a drop in sales across many luxury goods industries over the course of the year.

With restrictions on movement and lockdowns forcing the closure of their venues, gallerists were forced to come up with new ways to sell their art and promote their artists, including virtual fairs. Although gallerists have their reservations about the efficacy of virtual fairs, it does seem they are here to stay for the foreseeable future — at least until more in-person events can be held safely.

READ MORE: How artists in coronavirus-hit Middle East found strength in solidarity 

The auction world, on the other hand, has not seen sales significantly dented by the shift to digital. Sellers remain eager to shed their valuables and buyers are as hungry as ever.

For instance, at Sotheby’s online contemporary art sale at the end of June, buyers paid top dollar for a number of pieces. A Jean Michel Basquiat drawing sold for $15 million and a Francis Bacon triptych went for almost $85 million.

In the Middle East auction world, sentiments were also positive. In 2020, 52 percent of Sotheby’s MENA-related auctions came from online-only sales — a percentage based on six online and two live auctions. By comparison, there were seven live and no online auctions in 2019 and five live and no online auctions in 2018.




In 2020, 52 percent of Sotheby’s MENA-related auctions came from online-only sales — a percentage based on six online and two live auctions. (Supplied)

“That is not to say that there wasn’t plenty of online bidding and buying in these sales,” Edward Gibbs, Sotheby’s chairman of the Middle East and India, told Arab News. “But 2020 has been a year of fundamental change, which will have lasting effects moving forward.”

The process of adoption of digital modes had already begun in earnest, but truly came into its own with the onset of the pandemic. “The art market has historically been slow to embrace e-commerce; however, findings indicate that this has changed in the face of the crisis,” the Art Basel and UBS report said.

Indeed, in the first half of 2020, online sales accounted for 37 percent of galleries’ total sales — up from 10 percent in 2019. Of the collectors surveyed for the report, 85 percent or more said they had visited online viewing rooms for galleries or fairs, with just under half of them having used these platforms to finalize a purchase.

Some 66 percent of galleries surveyed anticipated that online sales in the gallery sector would further increase in 2021.

INNUMBERS

Art market

* $64.1bn Annual value of global art market.

* 36% Decline in gallery sales vis-a-vis first 6 months of 2019.

* 52% Online-only sales’ share of Sotheby’s MENA auctions in 2020.

“Among the many positive learnings to take into the new year include the importance of digital innovation and the irrepressible power of art and rare objects,” said Gibbs.

“In terms of technology, Sotheby’s has spent the past few years developing its own online sales platform, meaning that when coronavirus hit, we were able swiftly to scale up operations and bring new categories, never included online before, into an ever-broader range of offerings.”

Middle Eastern clients have always been among their most tech-savvy, he says.

“We held our inaugural online sale out of Dubai, as well as our first ever online sale of modern and contemporary Arab and Iranian art,” Gibbs said.

“Even in more traditional markets, such as with Islamic art for instance, this has also been the case. In our most recent Arts of the Islamic World and India live sale, over half of bidders who participated in the sale transacted online.”




Abdulrahman Al-Soliman’s, Untitled (1981) worth between an estimated $61,500 to $75,200. (Supplied)

The sentiment is shared at Christie’s. “There’s a very healthy uptick in online sales,” Caroline Louca-Kirkland, managing director of Christie’s Middle East, told Arab News. “We saw a large number of new registrants or clients that we didn’t have before that came through the online portal.”

In Nov. 2020, Christie’s Middle East celebrated its 15th autumn sale season with three online auctions. One of them was ‘We Are All Beirut’ — a charity initiative to provide relief and support to the arts community in the Lebanese capital following the Aug. 4 port explosion. The event raised over $680,000 to help rebuild the city’s art and cultural community, including Beirut’s historic Sursock Museum.

“Having online auctions without viewings during a lockdown and travel bans was challenging, but we did see some positive results,” Louca-Kirkland said. “We broke the record for Samia Halaby ($542,000) and achieved an impressive ($406,000) for a 1982 work by the late Moroccan master Mohamed Melehi. Additionally, we saw a record for Ranya Sarakbi’s Ouroboros ($406,000) in our inaugural design section.”

Christie’s saw great interest from collectors in Lebanon for its Beirut charity sale. “However, controls on overseas money transfers from Lebanon prevented collectors in Beirut from being able to participate in the auction,” Louca-Kirkland said.

“The Lebanese art market is suffering from the current banking restrictions and its political situation. Equally, the continued sanctions and other geopolitical hurdles have affected the Iranian market.”




A highly important Mamluk gilded and enamelled glass flask from Syria dated to the 14th century, worth up to an estimated $684,000. (Supplied)

In other parts of the Middle East the market is more promising. “There is still a healthy art market, in particular we are seeing a growing appetite for North African art, and new buyers coming in through the online platform,” she said. Nevertheless, “we need to support the Iranian and Lebanese art markets during these times.”

Christie’s Middle East intends to hold its annual art sale in October in London.

Although online platforms have been widely used during the pandemic, collectors have indicated they are not their preferred means to interact with artists and galleries.

Asked by the Art Basel and UBS survey how they would prefer to view art, 70 percent opted for attending a physical or offline exhibition or fair, versus 30 percent who preferred to use online viewing rooms or other online platforms.

Despite ongoing restrictions, some 82 percent of collectors said they plan to attend exhibitions, art fairs and events sometime in the next 12 months. Digital formats may have gained ground during the pandemic, but it would be wrong to predict the demise of real-world galleries and auctions any time soon.

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Twitter: @rebeccaaproctor


UN calls for children in Syria camps to be allowed home

Updated 28 February 2021

UN calls for children in Syria camps to be allowed home

  • UNICEF made its plea a day after three children died in a fire at Al-Hol camp
  • Syria’s Kurds hold thousands of alleged militants in jails and tens of thousands of their family members in camps in northeast Syria

BEIRUT: The UN children’s agency called Sunday for all minors held in displacement camps or jails in northeast Syria to be allowed home.
UNICEF made its plea a day after three children died in a fire at the overcrowded camp of Al-Hol, for people displaced in the fight against Daesh.
After years of leading the US-backed fight against Daesh, Syria’s Kurds hold thousands of alleged militants in jails and tens of thousands of their family members in camps in northeast Syria.
They hail from Syria, neighboring Iraq and dozens of other foreign countries.
Many are children.
“In the northeast of Syria, there are more than 22,000 foreign children from at least 60 nationalities who languish in camps and prisons, in addition to many thousands of Syrian children,” UNICEF regional director Ted Chaiban said in a statement, without giving a number of children held in jails.
He urged authorities in the northeast of Syria and UN member states to “do everything possible to bring children currently in the northeast of Syria back home.”
They should do this “through integrating Syrian children in their local communities and the repatriation of foreign children,” he added.
The Kurdish authorities have started sending thousands of displaced Syrians home from the camps.
But repeated calls for Western countries to repatriate their nationals have largely fallen on deaf ears, with just a handful of children and even fewer women being brought home.
Three children and a woman died on Saturday after a stove exploded in the Al-Hol camp, starting a fire, a Kurdish official said.
The UN humanitarian agency OCHA said at least 26 were injured.
Al-Hol is home to more than 62,000 people, displaced family members and relatives of alleged IS fighters, more than half of them children, it says.
A spate of killings, including decapitations, has rocked the camp since the start of the year, and humanitarian actors have repeatedly deplored living conditions there.
On February 1, the Save the Children charity also urged Iraq and Western countries to repatriate children from northeast Syria faster.
Daesh overran large parts of Syria and Iraq in 2014.
Kurdish-led forces backed air strikes by a US-led coalition expelled Daesh from their last patch of territory in Syria in March 2019, in a battle that displaced tens of thousands.


Jordanian ministers sacked for attending dinner breaching COVID-19 rules

Updated 28 February 2021

Jordanian ministers sacked for attending dinner breaching COVID-19 rules

  • A local news website said the pair had gone to a dinner at an Amman restaurant attended by nine people
  • The sackings come amid Jordanians’ increasing unease about the handling of the pandemic

AMMAN: Two Jordanian ministers resigned on Sunday for violating coronavirus-containment regulations, days after one of them had vowed “zero tolerance” against COVID-19 rule breakers.

Prime Minister Bisher al-Khasawneh asked Interior and Justice Ministers Samir Mubaidin and Bassam Talhouni to step down for violating the defense order put in place to curb the spread of COVID-19.

A government source told Arab News that al-Khasawneh's directives, which were immediately endorsed by King Abdullah, came after the two ministers were at an event that brought together more than six people.

A local news website said the pair had gone to a dinner at an Amman restaurant attended by nine people, in violation of a defense order that allows a maximum of six.

Mubaidin chaired a meeting with senior security officers last Thursday where he had stressed the need to abide by defense orders, notably following the curfew, wearing masks and physical distancing. 

He vowed “zero tolerance” against violators, adding that these measures were aimed at protecting public health.

A royal decree was issued on Sunday accepting the resignation of Talhouni and Mubaidin. 

Another decree assigned the deputy prime minister and minister of local administration, Tawfiq Kreishan, to take on the Ministry of Interior, and for the minister of state for legal affairs, Ahmad Ziadat, to take on the Ministry of Justice, as of Sunday.

Jordan has toughened its health regulations, reinstating a curfew on Fridays and extending lockdown hours, with the country witnessing a surge in coronavirus cases. It has recorded around 387,000 COVID-19 infections and 4,675 deaths.

The sackings come amid Jordanians’ increasing unease about the handling of the pandemic.

“The sacking of the two ministers should have been in fact linked to the failure in handling matters related to citizens’ lives, including vaccines, the health situation and food security,” political analyst Amer Sabaileh told Arab News.


Russian helicopter makes emergency landing in Syria

Updated 28 February 2021

Russian helicopter makes emergency landing in Syria

  • Russian Defense Ministry said the helicopter was not fired at

AMMAN/MOSCOW: A Russian Mi-35 helicopter made an emergency landing due to technical problems during a flight over Syria’s northern Hasaka province, state agencies quoted Russia’s Defense Ministry as saying on Sunday.
“The crew was quickly evacuated to the airfield. There is no threat to lives of the pilots,” the RIA news agency cited a Defense Ministry statement as saying.
The helicopter was not fired at, it added.
Syrian state media said earlier there were reports of a Russian helicopter crash in northeast Syria that killed the pilot.
It said the site of the crash was in Hasaka province, near Tal Tamr close to a Russian base.


Vatican envoy to Iraq tests COVID-19 positive ahead of Pope visit

Updated 28 February 2021

Vatican envoy to Iraq tests COVID-19 positive ahead of Pope visit

BAGHDAD: The Vatican’s ambassador to Iraq Mitja Leskovar has tested positive for COVID-19, two officials told AFP Sunday, just days before Pope Francis’ historic visit.
“Yes, he tested positive, but it will have no impact on the visit,” an Iraqi official involved in the papal plans said.
An Italian diplomat also confirmed the infection.
As apostolic nuncio to Baghdad, Leskovar had been traveling across the country in recent weeks to prepare for the pope’s ambitious visit, including visits to Mosul in the north, the shrine city of Najaf and the southern site of Ur.
During foreign trips, popes typically stay at the nuncio’s residence, but Iraqi officials have not revealed where Francis will reside during his trip, citing security reasons.
Iraq is experiencing a resurgence of coronavirus infections, which the health ministry has blamed on a new faster-spreading strain that first emerged in the United Kingdom.
The country of 40 million is registering around 4,000 new cases per day, near the peak that it had reached in September, with total infections nearing 700,000 and deaths at nearly 13,400.
Pope Francis, as well as his Vatican staff and the dozens of international reporters traveling with him, have already been vaccinated.
Iraq itself has yet to begin its vaccination campaign.


Egypt’s tourism ‘will return to pre-COVID-19 levels by fall 2022’

Updated 28 February 2021

Egypt’s tourism ‘will return to pre-COVID-19 levels by fall 2022’

  • The tourism sector is one of the Egyptian economy’s main pillars. It made revenues of $4 billion in 2020, compared to $13.03 billion in 2019. The country received about 3.5 million tourists last year, compared to 13 million in 2019

CAIRO: Tourism in Egypt will return to pre-pandemic levels by fall 2022, according to a government minister.
Khaled Al-Anani, who is minister of tourism and antiquities, said the sector’s recovery and restoration to pre-pandemic levels would be because of countries’ COVID-19 vaccination programs as well as Egypt’s efforts in developing archaeological sites in the Red Sea and South Sinai areas.
He said that, in the last three months of 2020, Egypt had received between 270,000 and 290,000 tourists on a monthly basis, equivalent to 10,000 tourists a day.
Al-Anani said the Grand Egyptian Museum would be finished during the third quarter of 2021 provided that, within the next few days, the winning international coalition to manage the museum’s operations was announced.
He added that the ministry had contacted 30 companies that organize concerts and Olympics to participate in the opening ceremony of the Grand Egyptian Museum but, while three had been chosen to organize the event, the pandemic had disrupted these plans.
The tourism sector is one of the Egyptian economy’s main pillars. It made revenues of $4 billion in 2020, compared to $13.03 billion in 2019. The country received about 3.5 million tourists last year, compared to 13 million in 2019.
At the start of 2020 it was expected that Egypt would receive over 14 million tourists.
It received 2 million tourists in the first quarter of last year until the pandemic hit and led to a contraction in tourism, according to the minister’s adviser and ministry spokesperson, Soha Bahgat.
“The tourism sector in the whole world has been affected in an unprecedented way due to the pandemic … and Egypt has taken strict precautionary measures to limit the spread of the virus, and at the same time supportive measures for the economy, including supporting the tourism sector,” she said.
Egypt managed to attract about a million tourists from last July to the start of 2021.
Bahgat added that although the number was small, it had led many establishments to resume operations and slowly maintain the tourism sector.