by Mona Alami
In 2013, a painting by Lebanese artist Paul Guiragossian, La Lutte de L’Existence (1988), was auctioned for 500,000 US dollars, ten times more than what it was worth a decade earlier. Mona Hatoum’s sculpture, Silence (1994), was sold for 470,500 dollars in 2011. In recent years, the work of Lebanese artists has been internationally acclaimed, driven by a buoyant local demand and a large diaspora as well as by institutional players.
Two decades ago, the Lebanese art scene was contained to a few auction houses and galleries, notable among them Armand Arcache, the Galerie Janine Rebeiz, Agial and the Galerie Epreuve d’Artiste. The pioneers who started these spaces relied on the interest of only a few collectors.
But things changed in 1998 when the first Beirut art expo, Art Sud, kicked off. “We witnessed the emergence of a real art market, with the Lebanese public starting to show interest in local artists and in international galleries. The opening of auction houses in Dubai and Doha in 2006 created a new dynamic,” says Laure d’Hauteville, who manages the Beirut Art Fair.
The Lebanese art scene has come a long way since then. Several Lebanese artists have built their own brands and are now featured in museums around the world. Such is the case of Saloua Raouda Choucair, the first Lebanese female abstract artist to challenge the patriarchal society of the early twentieth century, carving a name for herself through her modernistic reinterpretation of Arab reality. A younger artist, Akram Zaatari, is no stranger to New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
“Several other Lebanese artists have been showcased at the institutional level and in international galleries. Big curators . . . [like] Catherine David and Sam Bardaouil and Till Fellrath also visit Lebanon regularly, spurred by their interest in Lebanese art,” says Pascal Odille, the artistic director of the Beirut Art Fair.
Lebanese artists have performed on par with international ones, using a similar range of mediums—painting, video, installation. Their pieces are often very different from the mainstream, showing that beauty can be inspired by the kind of longstanding conflicts that have racked Lebanon.
The blooming art scene and a change in perspective have led some in Lebanon to understand the social and aesthetic significance of art—as well as appreciate its monetary value. “The Middle Eastern bourgeoisie has finally rolled up its inherited Persian carpets and replaced them with artworks as design elements,” says Lebanese architect Diana Ibrahim, who founded the Beirut-based architecture and interior design firm +arch.
In their eternal search for the perfect investment—an alternative asset that might beat the stock market and, perhaps, add aesthetic value—Lebanese investors around the world have started looking into these exotic assets. “Art shows, generally, a low correlation with equity and money markets. As well, it also offers exposure to different asset classes,” says Samer Salam, a Lebanese banker who, along with friends Mazen Soueid and Ziad Ghosn, launched the first Lebanese art fund about six months ago. Soueid, an economist, expects the fund to generate an IRR of 15 percent, suggesting that the partners will be doubling their initial investment at the end of the five-year term.
Such art funds appear to be more and more attractive in a world where parameters are slowly dissolving and rarity is sought. “Besides the aesthetic advantage it holds, a well-run art fund is a valuable diversification vehicle for any investment portfolio,” says Soueid.
The growth of the Lebanese and regional art scenes is one factor fueling the expansion of such exotic assets, with the art market boasting solid gains. As an example, the Beirut Art Fair, which began in 2010 with 30 galleries, 30 artists, 3,500 visitors and total sales of 800,000 dollars, is expected to quadruple its sales in this year’s edition, to be held in September. This year the fair will host around 50 galleries and 1,500 artists; it is anticipating 20,000 visitors and total sales of around 4 million dollars.
Speaking of the Lebanese art market generally, international gallerist Mark Hachem said he believes it is difficult to estimate the total value, but “growth has been significant, reaching 30 percent to 40 percent in recent years.” Still, experts warn of the risk of speculation in a booming market. This threat is confirmed by global figures: according to French database Artprice, works by contemporary artists born after 1945 jumped 39 percent year-on-year in 2013—generating worldwide auction sales totaling 17.2 billion dollars. Over the years, art has become a volatile investment that has witnessed inflationary trends as well as drops in its value. “It is very tempting to think that incremental values apply to the work of all artists; however, speculation can give a false sense of value to some artists,” warns d’Hauteville.
Demand for art is mainly driven by scarcity, the multiplication of galleries in the region, a better understanding of the art scene, as well as better coverage of art events by the media. “The opening of museums in Abu Dhabi, Qatar and Dubai fueled the demand for art. The launch of auction houses in the Gulf also provided a benchmark for the value of regional artworks,” says Odille. Seeing Lebanese art sold on the international market has contributed to local awareness. Today, Lebanese people are the largest regional buyers in terms of sales volumes, she explains.
Hashem points out that the Lebanese market has been propped up by three main art categories in recent years: “There is a revival of the [local] modernist art scene, which includes the likes of Guiragossian, the brothers Michel, Alfred and Youssef Basbous, as well as Chafic Abboud, whose pieces have become scarce commodities.” Prices in this particular category average between 40,000–140,000 dollars, he says. The second category includes the work of modernist contemporaries such as Hussein Madi, Mohamad Rawas and Chawki Chamoun. The third comprises young, contemporary and often socially engaged artists such as Fatima Mortada and Ayman Baalbacki.
But regardless of its investment potential, art remains above all a very emotional and personal experience. Soueid says: “When buying a piece, collectors need not only to think of the investment value it carries, but [also] of the pleasure they derive from it. Art needs to be appreciated.”