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Successful auction heralds new dawn for Saudi art

Nobody seemed to mind as temperatures soared in the charming Nassif House in Jeddah’s Al-Balad district last Wednesday night. Under a crescent moon and perhaps what is one of the oldest trees in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia hosted its first international art auction. Raising almost SR5 million ($1.3 million), the event was a real achievement in bringing together collectors, artists and a vast number of people to whom the whole experience was new and exciting. The presence of Christie’s, the world’s largest auction house, gave the sale a great deal of glamor and excitement. As the hammer fell for the first time, the room broke out in applause — the grandstanding of auctioneering had come to Saudi.
The entrance hall of the grand old house brimmed as the expected 90 guests quickly swelled to 200. There is no doubt that the charitable spirit of the sale helped draw interest, as proceeds went to supporting initiatives concerning the ongoing restoration of the historic Al-Balad district — an important cultural center that has been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site — as well as to provide support for those born with Down’s syndrome and their families. By partnering with Christie’s, the Ministry of Culture was able to offer a sale that maximized charitable proceeds by waiving buyers’ premiums. The auction house was able to replicate efforts made through its various charitable activities in the region, which have raised more than $25 million for good causes since 2005. As is often the case in Saudi Arabia, philanthropic causes attracted great attention, and the auction room fell silent as a wealthy benefactor discreetly pledged to buy all unsold pieces to support the causes. 
The event, of course, would not have been possible without the Ministry of Culture. The charity auction was just one of the new administration’s many tentacles that are reaching into the lives of Saudis to foster cultural initiatives and leisurely pursuits. Visitors to Al-Balad cannot fail to be impressed by the many initiatives around the district, from the cultivation of traditional arts and crafts to the restoration of buildings. But these are just a drop in the ocean when put in the context of the efforts being made to cater to the first “Jeddah Season” of summertime activities. There is no doubt that the ministry has a crucial role to play in delivering Saudi Arabia’s ambitious transformation program, Vision 2030, and it has already gone some way toward achieving its goal of contributing to building a vibrant, thriving and ambitious nation with events like last week’s “Art for Al-Balad” through partnering with Christie’s.
The two, in collaboration with the Hafez Gallery, put in considerable effort in ensuring that the pieces, all donated, were of a quality and provenance befitting any major sale of Middle Eastern contemporary art. Beautiful pieces, such as “Tawaf around the Kaaba 2” (which realized a staggering SR600,000), were donated by some of the leading names in the regional art space, including the Ayyam Gallery, Agial Gallery, Al-Marsa Gallery, Mazen Soueid, George Alama, and Akil and Hamza Bounoua. According to Salma Enani, who curated the show, “despite the obvious challenges of hosting such a milestone event in a UNESCO heritage site, we are glad both as the Hafez Gallery and as young Saudis to take part in what I hope was the beginning of a journey to celebrate the arts and culture of the region. This is especially important given the emphasis of cultivating educational pastimes for Saudis.”
It is a decade since the first sale of art by Saudi artists at Christie’s and the space has grown tremendously in that time. Following the sale of the Farsi Collection in 2010 (still the highest-selling private collection offered at auction in the Middle East) and collaboration with the Edge of Arabia art project, last week’s event heralded a new dawn wherein sporadic collaboration should now be part of a wider government-endorsed effort to put the Kingdom on the international art map.
For the Christie’s behemoth, which sold more than $7 billion last year, the Middle East remains a key market, having committed itself for the long-term. To Isabelle de la Bruyere, head of client advisory, “it was exciting for us to hold this important and historic charity auction. We hope to continue to be a part of this amazing cultural burgeoning that is happening in the Kingdom, and look forward to seeing the renovated Al-Balad district intact with all its charm and history.”
It remains to be seen as to whether Christie’s presence will help grow the local market, much as its greatly studied 2005 migration to Dubai did. In any case, the Kingdom remains an important market at a time of great transition. How the arts space develops over the next five to 10 years will be both revelatory and exciting.