The collapse of the private equity firm Abraaj Group and court-supervised liquidation of its assets has had far-reaching effects in the Gulf art market. Founded by Pakistani businessman Arif Naqvi, Abraaj Group enjoys wide recognition in Menasa (Middle East, North Africa and South Asia) contemporary art circles as lead sponsor of Art Dubai and patron of the coveted annual Abraaj Art Award.
Abraaj also sponsored a scholarship supporting students at London’s Royal College of Art. The company and its chairman Naqvi are prominent art collectors of Arab, Iranian, South Asian and traditional Islamic and Indian art, often featured in retrospective exhibitions, monographs and publications.
In conversation with Tim Cornwell, the writer for The Art Newspaper, Iranian art collector Mohammed Afkhami said, “The [Abraaj] collection is of high quality and there are some great works among the lots, such as those of Ahmed Mustafa and Parviz Tanavoli. These works were bought largely from auction and they were among the most touted lots of the 2007-2008 period, when prices reached a meteoric level.”
The swift rise and abrupt fall of the Abraaj Group sees its substantial artworks being auctioned off. It has a relevance to the Gulf boom and the sudden development of the Dubai artscape
Following allegations of misuse of investors’ funds, Abraaj went into provisional liquidation earlier this year, and the corporate collection was offered for auction at Bonhams in London by its administrators, Deloitte & Touche and PricewaterhouseCoopers, in order to raise money for the company. This was not just about the attempt to raise cash. Termed a fire sale, it was also about the massive price drops. A painting previously sold for one million US dollars hammer price — meaning without fees and commission — was given a low estimate at Bonhams of 66,000 dollars. All works with a low estimate of 50,000 UK pounds or under were offered without reserve. According to Melissa Gronlund from The National, the differential seemed to confirm what Arab art market watchers have long suspected: “The Arab art market is a bubble that is bursting, with prices untethered from an artist’s real stature in art history.”
Bonhams’ auction of the 200-piece strong art collection, spread over three sales held in London recently, made a total of 4,650,500 pounds. Every lot found a buyer, making this a white glove sale.
Estimated at 180,000-250,000 pounds, the highest price secured was 477,000 pounds for a painting by Indian artist Manjit Bawa. The works are devoid of landscapes or other superfluous details, recalling the style of Rajput and Pahari miniature painting. The coexistence of man and animals is a recurring depiction in his paintings, here exemplified by a seated woman, in traditional Punjabi clothing, surrounded by dogs. The painting was sold to an anonymous buyer from India for three times the price it last secured at an auction 12 years ago, according to the auction house records.
Estimated at 120,000-150,000 pounds, ‘Beej’ by Syed Haider Raza was sold for 345,000 pounds. One of the most seminal works from Raza’s Bindu Series, ‘Beej’ incorporates all the geometric and aesthetic elements that defined his marked shift from expressionistic landscape to geometric abstraction. Estimated at 80,000-120,000 pounds, ‘Girl’ by Francis Souza was sold for 429,000 pounds.
Famous Pakistani artist Rashid Rana’s work titled ‘Red Carpet Series # 1’ fetched the highest price of 34.4 million rupees (200,000 pounds) among all the artworks by Pakistani artists in an auction held in London. The second-highest among Pakistanis was late Sadequain’s untitled work which was sold for 12 million rupees (75,000 pounds).
Bonhams Modern and Contemporary South Asian Art specialist Tahmina Ghaffar remarked, “The exceptional prices achieved show the confidence in the market for art from India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.”
Bonhams’ clever strategy of low pricing, hoping that sales would be bidder-driven, mostly paid off. Lebanese artist Paul Guiragossian’s ‘Celebrations’, one of the standout lots of the sale, was given a low estimate of 40,000 pounds, and sold for 175,000 pounds. Mohammed Ehsai’s calligraphic, ‘He Is Merciful’, was given a low estimate of 50,000 pounds and went for 321,000 pounds. Two mid-century paintings by the Syrian artist Fateh Moudarres were each given low estimates of 7,000 pounds and achieved 20,000 pounds each.
Not all of the works fared so well. A pair of sculptures by the Iranian artist Parviz Tanavoli landed within their 18,000 to 25,000 pounds estimates, though his larger ‘Poet And The Bird’ surpassed its low estimate of 50,000 pounds to fetch 237,000 pounds.
The swift rise and abrupt fall of the Abraaj collection has a relevance to the Gulf boom and sudden development of the Dubai artscape. Talking to Susan Moore from Apollo Magazine, Bonhams’ head of Department for Modern and Contemporary Middle Eastern Art, Nima Sagharchi explains that the collection “was amassed between 2006 and 2009, ambitiously, mainly at auctions, and with a very aggressive bidding strategy. They went for headline lots.” This was the time when the art market in the regional hub of Dubai seemed to spring up out of nowhere almost overnight, against the backdrop of peace in the Gulf, rising oil wealth and government-led cultural initiatives. The whole art ecosystem arrived more or less at once: galleries, fairs, auctions, museums and exhibitions, and Abraaj was a major player in the scene. The current auction and loss of Abraaj as art patron is a debacle that will rattle confidence in this nascent art market.
Published in Dawn, EOS, November 11th, 2018