* Tehran Art Auction raises record $5.1 mln this year
* Wealthy Iranians see art as safe haven investment
* Economic sanctions a catalyst for domestic art market
By Michelle Moghtader
DUBAI, June 1 Iran's smart set turned out in
force for this year's Tehran Art Auction, spending a record
amount as the country's modern and contemporary art scene
thrives despite economic sanctions.
The annual event on Friday was a sell-out, raising $5.1
million from the auction of works by Iranian artists, more than
double the amount fetched last year.
While Western sanctions since 2010 on Iran's oil and
financial sectors have sapped Iranian collectors' purchasing
power, and forced them to retreat from international art
auctions such as Christie's, they have also been a catalyst to
building up the domestic art market.
Since its launch three years ago the Tehran Art Auction has
gained social cachet and most of the 90 items sold on Friday
went for at least two times their predicted values, pushing
total sales $2.4 million above forecasts, according to the
Tehran Art Auction website.
The highest-selling pieces were two works by notable Iranian
poet and painter, Sohrab Sepehri (1928-1980), "Untitled (from
the tree trunk series)" and "Untitled" sold for $680,000 and
With no other comparable event in the Iranian capital, the
auction is very much a place to see and be seen.
Prominent Iranian actor, Reza Kianian, was the auctioneer at
the Hotel Parsian, one of Tehran's top hotels, on Friday and the
event drew an audience of more than 1,000 - although "only about
100 of the people who attended actually bid," said Zahra
Jahan-Bakhsh, the Tehran Art Auction's co-head of international
"Iranians like to show off and this is the best way to do
so," a participant told Reuters.
Indeed, many works by the same artists could be found at
private galleries for half the price. "I can tell by the cars
parked in the lots that the attendees are very rich," she said.
Other notable works on sale were "The Hunting Blue Sky" by
Reza Derakhshani (1952), which fetched $227,000, and "Love" by
Mohammad Ehsai (1939), which went for $219,000.
Sales at the auction have risen from about $1.7 million at
the first auction in 2012 when 73 lots were sold. Last year 80
works went on the block, raising $2 million.
"The economic crisis was the whole reason we started Tehran
Art Auction," said Alireza Sami Azar, a former managing director
of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tehran who is the founder
and director of the Tehran Art Auction.
He is also credited with bringing Iran's contemporary art
collection out of hiding. "We've had to look to the private
sector for support," he said.
Tehran boasts more than 200 privately owned galleries, most
of which have opened over the past 10 years.
Iranian art attracted attention in 2008, when a work by the
sculptor Parviz Tanavoli fetched $2.8 million at Christie's in
Dubai. That remains an auction record for any Middle Eastern
artist, said Michael Jeha, Christie's managing director in the
"Iranian art is very rich in heritage, you have a very
strong (pool) of Iranian modern artists from the 30s, 40s
onwards," said Jeha. "Over the last seven years since we've been
holding our auctions, Iranian art has been one of the
Today, Tanavoli's work is on display in New York's
Metropolitan Museum of Art and at the Tate Gallery in London. In
Tehran on Friday his work "Heech Lovers" was valued between
$38,000 and $51,000, but sold for $64,000.
"We owe a lot to Christie's for having pushed Iranian art
into the international spotlight," Tanavoli told Reuters.
"Young artists who were scared of the future and filled with
doubt are a lot more hopeful these days," he added, pointing to
the importance of Iranians' greater appreciation of contemporary
and modern art.
"Iranians used to buy cars, but now they buy art," he said.
The Iranian government has not promoted Iranian art
domestically or internationally, leaving the private sector to
fill the gap through galleries and auctions. But officials in
President Hassan Rouhani's 11-month old administration say they
want to become more active.
"Iran is more than just carpets," said Majid Mollanoroozi,
newly appointed by the government as director of Tehran's Museum
of Contemporary Art.
"But, we've done a bad job with regards to marketing Iranian
art," he said. He hopes to increase the recognition of Iranian
artists internationally and welcomed collaboration with museums
such as the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York.
As Iran's economy struggles under the weight of economic
sanctions, with inflation running at about 40 percent, art is
being seen as a safe haven for wealthy Iranians that is also
capable of generating significant profits.
"We are looking for places to invest our money," said an
Iranian collector during Christie's auction of Middle East art
in Dubai in March. "For many other sectors like real estate,
metals, foreign currency, they don't provide the same rate of
return as they used to, so we are turning to art."
(A full price listing and images of the pictures can be
found here (here))
(Editing by William Maclean and Susan Fenton)