Egyptian modern art has been breaking records at auctions for several years now. How can novice collectors make sure they’re getting their money’s worth? We look at what makes a good investment.
On the evening of 27 April 2010, Mahmoud Saїd’s Les chadoufs was up for sale at an auction held by Christie’s in Dubai. The modest-sized painting had an estimated price between USD 150,000 and USD 200,000. Bidding started and bids came in quickly, one after the other. Before anyone had time to react, the painting had reached USD 1 million. You could hear the room gasp but bidding continued until it reached USD 2 million. The audience broke into wild applause, stunned at the new record for a modern Egyptian artwork. The sale concluded with a premium price of USD 2.4 million. This painting was the ninth piece ever sold at auction for the artist Mahmoud Saїd and the seventh to be sold in Dubai. It was a record that set a precedent for other artists. Indeed, a couple of months later, another Mahmoud Saїd painting, Les derviches tourneurs broke that record and was sold at USD 2.5 million.
So, what drives the performance of Egyptian modern art at auction? And is it worth the investment?
Several factors have recently given rise to a market for Egyptian modern art. Major museums in Qatar and the UAE have started to amass extensive permanent collections and the presence of two established auctions houses in the Middle East (Christie’s and Sotheby’s) has provided trustworthy venues for acquisition. Two large auctions had a major impact in further creating a market for Egyptian modern art. The auctions were held by Christie’s in April and October 2010 to sell artworks from the iconic, museum-quality private collection of the late Dr. Mohamed Farsi, former mayor of Jeddah. The Farsi collection represented the history of the entire Middle East told through its most important painters and artists and had been meticulously curated and researched. The auctions were a resounding success and resulted in record sales for several artists; Mahmoud Saїd was one of them.
There is no doubt that Egyptian modern art is a sound investment given recent market activity, but buyers must do their research and make sure they receive good advice. It is imperative to have the work assessed by an expert to determine its value. Some points to consider when looking to invest in art:
Quality and Consistency of Artwork and Artist
Not all artworks by the same artist have the same quality, attention to detail or level of skill. Savvy collectors must research the art market and understand the history of the artist and his contemporaries. These steps will not only help buyers make the right acquisitions but will also help them spot undervalued and upward-trending artists. Mahmoud Saїd is one of Egypt’s earliest and most influential artists and a founder of the modern Egyptian art movement. This is reflected in the revenue generated by sale of his artwork at auctions, where he is one of the highest selling Egyptian artists both in quantity (53 lots sold to date) and value.
Uniqueness and Importance of Artwork
The principle of rarity definitely applies to art: the more unique the artwork, the more sought after it will be. Mahmoud Saїd’s Les derviches tourneurs is not only of great quality and detail but also a unique subject for the artist whose body of work consists mainly of landscapes and portraits.
Artworks also gain importance when they depict monumental events, when they foreshadow the future, or when they win awards. Abdel Hadi el-Gazzar’s painting, Construction of the Suez Canal is a case in point. In March 2014, Christie’s held an auction of the Pharos Art Collection. One of the works on sale was a watercolour study of the Suez Canal painting. The significance of this work and the fact that it was part of a major Egyptian corporate collection resulted in a record sale. It sold for USD 1 million, a record indeed considering that this was only a study for the painting proper. Tahia Halim’s Farhet el-Nuba—depicting the people’s pride in President Nasser and the Aswan High Dam—is another example of a historically significant work. Acquiring one of these pieces is like owning a piece of Egypt’s history.
Provenance and the ability to trace ownership from artist to current owner is also of great importance to ensure the authenticity of the artwork. If the piece comes from a major collection, such as the Farsi or the Pharos collections, this also increases its value.
Hamed Nada is one of the most active and successful Egyptian artists on the market, with over forty-five lots offered for sale at auction to date. Almost half of these have been part of the Farsi collection. Nada’s prices peaked with the sale of Henna Eve for USD 602,500 by Christie’s in April 2010. Not only was that artwork of exceptional quality and part of an impressive collection, it was also well-documented and had appeared in prestigious publications including on the cover of Liliane Karnouk’s seminal work Modern Egyptian Art (1910- 2003).
El-Gazzar’s The Green Madman is another example. Egyptian businessman Naguib Sawiris bought the painting from el-Gazzar’s widow for an unconfirmed price of approximately EGP 1 million (USD 180 thousand) ca. 2004. A sound investment, the painting remains in the Sawiris collection and would certainly fetch multiples of that price if offered for sale today.
Following the two Farsi auctions, both Hamed Nada and Abdel Hadi el-Gazzar have been enjoying strong market activity with many collectors holding on to their acquisitions as premium investments.
The current interest in Egyptian modern art has made it imperative to develop a holistic strategy for Egyptian visual arts. Art patronage, smart investment and the curation of cohesive collections are a good way to start. This is not only important to preserve the value of Egypt’s artistic heritage but will also lend importance and value to contemporary and future art.
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Saida El Harakany is founder of Adsum, the Middle East’s first homegrown art consulting firm. Adsum combines years of El Harakany’s business and strategy consulting experience with her passion for the arts. Focusing on the contemporary art market in the Middle East, Adsum aims to bridge the gap between the often-elusive art market and those wishing to understand and acquire art.