Once the undisputed land of conspicuous wealth and consumption, the United Arab Emirates is being squeezed by a large drop in oil prices. It's a shame this comes after the region's addiction to art has become fully entrenched. Sotheby's is planning its first contemporary art sale from its new Doha, Qatar branch on March 18, 2009 – also the opening day of the Art Dubai fair. Hell, it's enough to make you "scream" (see photo).
This looks like the triumph of ambition over common sense, but Sotheby's was probably too far into its Middle Eastern endeavors before the bottom fell out on the region's finances. And with Bonhams and Christie's already in town, Sotheby's had little choice but to follow.
The UAE has committed quickly to the art scene. Abu Dhabi is working on building a Louvre, and is erecting a Guggenheim. Last year, art auction revenues reached $34.9 million, up 70 percent from 2007. But, the upcoming auction should be tricky, particularly with the poor performance of the sector last fall in more established markets, like New York, London and Hong Kong.
In around two weeks, we'll see if Sotheby's will be able to make this new auction house work, or if it will fall victim to the greater recession-triggered decline in the art market. The Mei Moses All Art Index dropped 4.5 percent last year. This seems like a modest amount, but you need to remember that record-setting sales continued through the middle of the summer. Last May, Roman Abramovich was a billionaire with a new Francis Bacon piece in his collection. Today ... we know he feels pain, too. The second half of the year wiped out the first half's records and pulled prices down further.
It's a tough time to count on the market to make Sotheby's Doha a success, but the market doesn't give us choices.
[Photo: "El Grito" by Julio Aguilera]