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


Turkish lawyer held for ‘insulting the president’ with tweet

Updated 32 min 38 sec ago

Turkish lawyer held for ‘insulting the president’ with tweet

  • Police raided Mert Yasar’s house on Tuesday and detained the lawyer after an investigation by the Istanbul chief public prosecutor’s office

ISTANBUL: A Turkish lawyer has been arrested and charged with “insulting the president” over a controversial tweet that included sexist remarks directed at ruling Justice and Development Party MP Ozlem Zengin. 

Police raided Mert Yasar’s house on Tuesday and detained the lawyer after an investigation by the Istanbul chief public prosecutor’s office.  

Zengin sparked widespread anger recently with dismissive comments on alleged human rights violations and strip searches in Turkish prisons, ridiculing the claims of dozens of conservative women who said they had been subjected to intrusive searches in recent years. 

“An honorable woman, a woman with morals, wouldn’t wait a year (before complaining). This is an imaginary narrative,” Zengin said on Feb. 19. 

Amid public debate on the topic, Zengin said that women were falling pregnant on orders from various “illegal” groups seeking to trigger public anger over babies growing up in prisons.

“These people are having babies upon directives so that they can assert ‘there are pregnant women or women with babies in jails’,” she said on Feb. 21.

Yasar responded to this latest statement with a furious tweet, targeting the MP: “If the presidential cabinet is given the right of the first night, will Ozlem Zengin close her mouth?” he tweeted, sparking anger among women’s rights activists from all sides of politics. 

Fahrettin Altun, presidential communications director, immediately issued a statement urging the “independent Turkish judiciary to punish this creature named Mert Yaşar in the severest way possible.”

“What will the opposition do in the face of this dishonor? They will, most probably, hide their heads in the sand. We will follow it up,” he said. 

Yasar was arrested on charges of insulting the president according to Article 299 of the Turkish penal code — which critics say points to the disproportionate use of this clause since his tweet targeted an MP, not the president himself. 

Article 299 stipulates that the person who insults the president shall be punished by imprisonment from one to four years, and if the crime is committed publicly, the punishment will be increased by one to six years.

Between 2014 and 2019, about 128,872 investigations were carried out into alleged insults against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, with prosecutors launching about 27,700 criminal cases.

A total of 9,556 defendants were sentenced by Turkish courts, while about 900 minors aged between 12 and 17 also appeared before the court on the same charge. 

“The politicization of the judiciary continues with unlawful arrest and false accusation,” rights activist Nesibe Kiris said. 

Several female politicians and right activists offered examples of their personal experiences with insults that failed to lead to criminal proceedings, sparking debate about the “politically motivated” implementation of such penal clauses. 

“All kinds of insults, threats, sexist attacks on me and all opposing women are free and even they provide a reason for a decision of non-prosecutions. But when it comes to an AKP politician, it becomes a reason for his arrest. It is a tailor-made judiciary. The people’s scales of conscience will weigh all of you when the day comes,” Canan Kaftancioglu, Istanbul head of the opposition Republican People’s Party tweeted. 

A group of lawyers issued a message in support of Yasar, saying that his arrest “is the continuation of the judicial practice that makes decisions under the pressure of social media and political power.”

The arrest was also attacked as being a warning against any vocal criticisms on social media.

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Egypt pledges commitment to war on terror in call with US Secretary of State

Updated 44 min 19 sec ago

Egypt pledges commitment to war on terror in call with US Secretary of State

  • The call from Blinken was the first official contact Egypt had received from the new American administration of President Joe Biden

CAIRO: Egyptian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sameh Shoukry on Wednesday pledged his country’s commitment to the war on terror during a phone conversation with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

The call from Blinken was the first official contact Egypt had received from the new American administration of President Joe Biden.

Shoukry told Blinken that Egypt was keen to build on the progress made over recent decades to develop cooperation between the two countries.

According to an official statement, their talks focused on regional and international issues of joint interest. They also discussed the latest developments in Libya and Palestine, and the need to continue working together to combat terrorism and other challenges and security threats facing the region.

Highlighting the historic partnership between the US and Egypt, the officials agreed to further develop political, economic, and cultural ties while promoting issues related to human rights.

US State Department spokesman, Ned Price, said that Blinken’s call to Shoukry showed the importance that America attached to its strategic partnership with Egypt, especially in the areas of security, combating terrorism, and the exchange of views on regional matters.

However, the statement said that Blinken had raised US concerns over Egypt’s potential procurement of Russian Sukhoi Su-35 fighter aircraft.

During the call, they also discussed support for UN-led Libyan peace negotiations, the Middle East peace process, and cooperation in fighting terrorism in Sinai.


Qatar, Egypt to appoint envoys, resume work of embassies

Updated 52 min 10 sec ago

Qatar, Egypt to appoint envoys, resume work of embassies

  • Cairo and Doha thanked Kuwait for hosting the first round of talks between them

CAIRO: Qatar and Egypt have agreed to appointment envoys and reopen their embassies in the wake of the AlUla agreement to mend relations with Doha.

The resolve came after delegations from both countries held talks in Kuwait to plan the normalization of links between the nations.

“The two parties agreed to resume the work of their diplomatic missions … followed by the appointment of an Egyptian ambassador in Doha and a Qatari ambassador in Cairo,” an Egyptian diplomatic source said.

Qatar’s permanent representative to the Arab League, Ibrahim Abdul Aziz Al-Sahlawi, was expected to become Doha’s envoy in Cairo, the source added.

During the meeting in Kuwait, Egypt was said to have set out its conditions for settling relations with Qatar, which included strict demands for Doha not to interfere in Egyptian internal affairs.

The AlUla agreement, signed on Jan. 5 during the Gulf Cooperation Council summit held in the ancient city, saw Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt restore ties with Qatar, ending a dispute which started in 2017.

A statement from the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said: “The two sides welcomed the measures taken by both countries after signing the AlUla agreement as a step toward building confidence between the two brotherly countries.”

The meeting discussed ways to enhance joint work and bilateral relations in areas including security, stability, and economic development.

Cairo and Doha thanked Kuwait for hosting the first round of talks between them and for its efforts to heal the rift and promote Arab unity.

Egypt’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently announced that Cairo and Doha had exchanged two official memoranda agreeing to restore diplomatic relations and on Jan. 18 flights between Egypt and Qatar resumed after having been suspended for more than three years.


Jordan reimposes Friday curfew as virus surges

Updated 24 February 2021

Jordan reimposes Friday curfew as virus surges

  • An existing nightly curfew will begin at 10 p.m. instead of midnight
  • From Sunday a maximum of 30 percent of public-sector employees will be allowed at their workplace

AMMAN: Jordan has reimposed an all-day curfew on Fridays to stem the spread of coronavirus as cases rise, officials said Wednesday.
“Starting this week, the government is imposing a curfew throughout the kingdom from 10 p.m. (2000 GMT) Thursdays until 6 am Saturdays,” Information Minister Ali Al-Ayed said in a statement.
Walking to a mosque for Friday prayers, however, is permitted, he said.
An existing nightly curfew will begin at 10 p.m. instead of midnight, while from Sunday a maximum of 30 percent of public-sector employees will be allowed at their workplace.
The toughening of Covid-19 restrictions returns Jordan to rules imposed in March last year, and which were only eased last month.
“The kingdom has witnessed a rapid spread of Covid in recent weeks. This is why swift and strict measures are needed,” Health Minister Nazir Obeidat said.
Jordan, which began vaccinations last month, has officially recorded more than 376,000 novel coronavirus cases and over 4,600 deaths out of a population of 10.5 million people.

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Turkey and Greece spark new flare-up in the Med

Updated 19 min 29 sec ago

Turkey and Greece spark new flare-up in the Med

  • Greek PM: ‘The best we can hope for is avoiding a military accident’

ANKARA: Fears of a new conflict between Turkey and Greece have soared after Ankara sent a new scientific research vessel into the Aegean Sea.
Turkey claims the TCG Cesme is operating in international waters between the two countries, north of the flashpoint in the eastern Mediterranean that brought the two countries close to conflict last year and provoked the EU into considering sanctions against Ankara.
Nevertheless, there is anger in Athens, and Ankara claimed four Greek F-16 jets harassed the vessel by dropping a flare. Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said Turkey responded with the “necessary retaliation in line with the rules. While we are carrying out scientific work, harassment is not correct. It doesn’t fit in our good neighborly ties.”
Greece’s Air Force was conducting an exercise in the Aegean Sea at the time, but the Defense Ministry said their planes were nowhere near the Turkish vessel, and denied harassing it. The Greek Foreign Ministry said the presence of the Turkish vessel in the area was “an unnecessary move that doesn’t help positive sentiment.”
The incident has again triggered the dispute over maritime zones as both countries continue to search for energy resources.
A second round of exploratory talks is due to be held in Athens before an EU summit on March 25-26, when Brussels will decide on sanctions on Ankara over its energy exploration missions in the eastern Mediterranean.
However, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan dashed hopes of reconciliation by insulting Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and telling him to “know your place”. Mitsotakis “will get to know the crazy Turks well,” Erdogan said.
George Tzogopoulos, a senior fellow at the International Center of European Formation, told Arab News: “It is important that the resumption of exploratory talks between Greece and Turkey does not elicit hopes for a breakthrough.
“The two countries interpret dialogue in different terms and employ relevant political communication strategies. New tensions concerning the research ship Cesme are nothing new in the modern history of bilateral relations, but they further deteriorate an already toxic climate”
Long-term solutions are unlikely, Tzogopoulos said. “For now, the best we can hope for is avoiding a military accident,” he said.
Tzogopoulos said a model of selective engagement with Turkey was being studied in Brussels. “This will continue despite new tensions,” he said. “From a NATO perspective, deconfliction remains a priority and this goal has been met until now.”