Mojdeh Tabatabaei says it takes a lot of guts for Iranian galleries to take part in international art fairs as it makes no economic sense at all. Speaking to Honaronline, she says it takes a lot of energy and money to be part of the contemporary global art scene and keep the name of Iranian art alive.
The owner of Mojdeh Art Gallery is a regular at the international art auctions like Christie's, Sotheby’s, Bonhams, and Art Dubai. She tells us more about the strengths and weaknesses of Iranian art in these high-status auction houses.
How do you assess the sales of Iranian art at the Christie's Dubai 22nd auction week of modern and contemporary art?
I have always tried to attend the Christie's Dubai. In the last auction week some 163 artworks were auctioned, of which 49 were from Iran. Meaning, some 30 percent of all artworks were Iranian, which is a national pride. This shows we have a say in international art fairs, particularly when it comes to photography, sculpture and painting by contemporary and classic artists. That we have had works auctioned in these events is truly a big thing. It gives a lot of prestige and value to our visual art. True, some works were not auctioned at the Christie's, but still our artists broke many sales records. It goes without saying that the greater the auction houses and art sales are, the bigger the market for Iranian art sales becomes.
However, the auctions had some weaknesses: There were too many artworks on auction. Some 49 artworks from 49 Iranian artists took part, which seems a lot to me. For instance, Sirak Melkounian had 7 items on auction. They were all fabulous but they were one too many; it weakened their market position. It also decreased international demand for his art. This is not the case for other prominent artists like Zenderoudi, Tanavoli and Moshiri. Their artworks usually sell like hot cakes.
Another problem in weak sales had to be the improper selection of these works and putting them together in one place. Too many auctions got too many buyers tired. They lost enthusiasm along the way. This was particularly the case for Iranian artworks which were put to auction in the closing hours. Many participants started leaving the house midway through the auctions. This was not the case at the Sotheby’s or Bonhams. They always select top works from artists and their numbers are restricted. The Christie's Dubai never works this way.
Another problem was that many buyers were Iranian nationals. This is while we should try and get foreign buyers on board. They should be encouraged to buy Iranian art for their collections. This way competition among buyers increases and more and more foreign collectors would be encouraged to buy Iranian art. In Tehran, many art collectors prefer to buy from the Tehran Auction. They mostly have no international bank accounts and it’s easier for them to use cash instead. The only way out is to make sure both Iranian and foreign collectors purchase Iranian art. We should make this market truly an international one. The problem with the Arab and Turk collectors is that they usually prefer to purchase art from their own countries.
Is it still possible to find new buyers for Iranian art in the region?
At the Christie's I rarely saw old buyers. But there were many new ones. We have to pave the way for a wider presence of new collectors. They need to realize how important it is to purchase Iranian art from international auctions. It goes without saying that an art purchased at an auction also carries the name of that auction. It’s a prestige and it more than doubles the art’s value. Artworks bought from international auctions become internationally appraised as well. They pass through the filtering process and they are appraised by international buyers and collectors. We must encourage international collectors to purchase Iranian art. They must feel the need to have Iranian artworks in their collections. This could also happen to international museums. They should allocate some space for the Iranian art. Publication of books and articles on Iranian art could help us to this end.
Art Dubai was held concurrently with the Christie's. They both auctioned Iranian art. How did Iranian art perform at the Art Dubai?
Art Dubai is a leading international art fair and the preeminent platform to interact with art from the Middle East and North Africa. It has two sections of modern and contemporary art. Some 94 galleries from 43 countries were in attendance this year. Nine Iranian galleries also took part which is a big deal for us. It shows Art Dubai organizers see Iranian art as having something to say in the region.
Of course, what happens in such events is just for show and you have to wait and see what happens next in other events to evaluate our success. Many participants usually wait for after the show to visit galleries to purchase art. You need a lot of money to take part in the fair and you never make enough sales to cover your expenses. Iranian galleries did well this year, however. It was great to see some competition between Iranian galleries and their counterparts from places like Paris, London and New York. I saw many great works in Art Dubai. My honest take is that Iranian artists and galleries came up on top. In a sense, I admire all those who took part in the annual event. They had the guts to take part despite the expenses that didn’t make any economic sense at all. They did all this and more to keep the name of Iranian art alive, and they did it so well. I admire them all.
How about having a similar international art fair in Tehran? Is that possible?
Rumors are circulating that Tehran might also have its own international art fair. There will always be criticism for such a fair nut we should never try and compare it to those that have been around for 250 years. We are new to this market and we should try and culture ourselves first if we want to stay in the game. The focus at the Tehran Auction is local. Those behind this annual event are yet to feel the need to go international. This is a gradual process and it’s still too early to go global. We could still get international buyers on board and invite them to our auctions and special museums. This could pave the way for having an international art air in future as well. This could help us find international buyers and collectors.
At the Sotheby’s and Bonhams, how did Iranians perform there?
There were some top works auctioned at the events. Bahman Mohasses had an exceptional sale. Art sold at these auctions are too expensive. They have their own buyers. Prices are in the British pound, and with the premium price on top of that, the final price usually goes up through the roof. I see it very difficult if not impossible for Iranian collectors to buy art from these auction houses - unless expats get on board.
Any new programs for Mojdeh Gallery this year?
Our plan is to focus more on cultural events in the capital and provincial areas. We want to showcase the cultural aspects of the places we go for show. Our annual exhibitions will continue apace but they will be mostly group exhibits for the youth. We also plan to increase our work with museums in provincial cities and towns. This year is the Year of Culture and Communication for the Mojdeh Gallery. We are trying to meet our goals this year by publishing books, holding seminars and organizing cultural events and activities nationwide.
Translation by Bobby Naderi