The Art Market: players on the Gulf course

Art Dubai, which ends Saturday, attracted a truly global crowd to the opening of its seventh edition, with a number of prestigious “first-timers”.

Among them were Californians Cliff and Mandy Einstein and the always-super-fashionable Norman and Norah Stone. There was French-US art adviser Patricia Marshall and Belgian collector Guy Ullens, founder of the Beijing-based Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art, accompanied by a dozen Chinese collectors, and there was also glamorous Texan Amy Phelan.

Added to the attraction of the fair this year was the Sharjah Biennale, now partly lodged in a smartly restored heritage quarter in the neighbouring emirate.

With 75 exhibitors, the fair achieves a good mix of international dealers – including Pace, Miro, Lambert, Continua and Arndt and more local galleries. As Beirut-based Andrée Sfeir-Semler noted, “There just aren’t enough top galleries in this part of the world to make an excellent fair, so we need the big international names. But it’s a balance, we need to remain the ‘mirror’ of the region.”

Among the most pricey works were Calder’s “Two Pics” (1967) at Pace in the mid-seven figures, and an installation by Wim Delvoye at Arndt that combined his filigree sculptures with a 19th-century Syrian panelled room from Aleppo ($3.5m for the whole thing, but separate items between $60,000 and $310,000).

This, however, is a fair where business is done at more affordable levels: for instance, the headdresses by hot-hot-hot Benin artist Meschac Gaba, which sold for $19,500 at Galerie In Situ. Or take the “Great Expectation”, images of the moon by Igra Tanveer, which sold at Grey Noise to none other than the Crown Prince of Dubai, Sheikh Hamdan Al Maktoum, for $5,000 each (he bought all three editions). Ayyam made brisk sales of an edition of quirky sculptures by Nadim Karam at $7,000.

Pilar Corrias, who quickly sold a large framed manuscript by Shahzia Sikander for $150,000 was echoed by other dealers when she said: “The great thing is that here we see clients we don’t meet elsewhere.”

Belgian collector Guy Ullens was in a spending mood at Dubai this year. First he revealed that he was about to take delivery of an immense, five-panel painting (six by five metres) by Sterling Ruby. Ruby has just signed on with Hauser & Wirth, which opened a new show of his work in London Friday. Then Ullens went on a $1m spree to acquire Middle Eastern artists, buying Ahmad Mater at Athr gallery, Ramin and Rokni Haerizadeh at Isabelle van den Eynde and Pascale Martine Tayou at Continua. He also reserved Ahmed Moualla's 12-metre long “Power and People” (2011), an apocalyptic scene that references the Arab Spring, for $300,000 at Atassi Gallery.

Head-dress by Meschac Gaba

Sotheby’s has linked up with Tefaf, the European Fine Art Fair, which ends Sunday in Maastricht, to launch a high-end art and antiques fair in Beijing in September 2014. The fair organisers issued a cautious statement saying that they were “exploring the possibilities” of developing the event via Sotheby’s joint venture with GeHua, which will enable it to hold sales in the Beijing Freeport and probably elsewhere.

The new fair would be a smaller version of Tefaf, with up to 100 dealers, and would concentrate on Old Master paintings, European works of art, jewellery and modern painting, said fair chairman Ben Janssens. He said that Sotheby’s had suggested the idea, “and I said yes straight away.”

Tefaf has been trying to penetrate the Chinese market for some time – notably last year by bringing in a large group of potential buyers. However, so far it has not seen much return for its efforts, and this year the fair saw very few Asian visitors.

“Because of the joint venture, we will be able to sell directly to the Chinese, and Sotheby’s will be a help because of its database of clients there,” Janssens said. Speaking during a visit to the Dubai fair, Sotheby’s chairman Robin Woodhead said: “China represents new opportunities in the art world, and our relationship with GeHua gives us a gateway into that market.”

Auction houses are generally excluded from art fairs, which are organised by the trade as a counterbalance to the salerooms. Asked whether Sotheby’s would be allowed to exhibit at Tefaf Beijing, Janssens said, “We haven’t discussed that detail yet. Yes, in a way this venture represents a change of direction, but times are changing as well, and it is the chance to work with a partner we know and trust. Dealers all work from time to time with the auction houses.”

As if on cue, Sotheby’s was carrying on its website Art Fair Insider a Tefaf blog, with White Cube director Tim Marlow talking about three works he liked at the fair ...

Georgina Adam is editor-at-large of The Art Newspaper

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.