‘Buy what you love and love what you buy’: Young buyers drive Saudi art market

Special ‘Buy what you love and love what you buy’: Young buyers drive Saudi art market
Bidding taking place at a Sotheby's auction in London (Supplied)
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Updated 10 December 2021

‘Buy what you love and love what you buy’: Young buyers drive Saudi art market

‘Buy what you love and love what you buy’: Young buyers drive Saudi art market

The art market is growing rapidly in Saudi Arabia — and younger buyers are at the forefront of this charge.

Sotheby’s chairman for Middle East & India Edward Gibbs said that young Saudis have increasingly entered the high-value auction market for art and collectibles.

The regional head of the famous auctioneer, established in London in 1774 but now with its global base in New York, currently sees two trends in the market for collectibles in the Kingdom.

He noted that there are now younger Saudis who invest in contemporary art and vintage accessories, as well as Saudi artists whose works fetch impressive sums at auctions around the world.

Gibbs said: “Over the past five years, the number of Saudi participants in our auctions has doubled.

“And in 2021, a third of bidders from Saudi were under the age of 40. That’s really a seismic shift, and these are very encouraging statistics. We are very interested in what looks like an extremely promising emerging market.”

Sotheby’s has been active in the Kingdom for decades, but until recently focused on a relative handful of collectors of historical coins, Islamic art and calligraphy. Marketing was limited to invitation-only events for a select few collectors with whom Sotheby’s had an existing relationship.

“Typically, a team of our specialists would go to Saudi Arabia to connect with collectors, value collections and nurture future buyers,” added Gibbs. “We've been working very discreetly over many decades in this capacity.”

Sotheby’s competes with rival major auction houses such as Christie’s and Phillips.

'Artificial Light' by contemporary Saudi artist Ahmed Mater

Sotheby’s Gibbs points out that it is modern and contemporary art that is generating interest among younger Saudis. This younger age group also purchases a large number of collectibles.

This term covers a wide range of high-end items such as classic cars, wine, jewellry and the latest craze, non-fungible tokens. NFTs are digital assets designed to show someone has ownership of a unique virtual item, such as an online picture or a video.

Gibbs noted that Saudi artists are becoming better known for their work, both within the Kingdom and around the world.

These include the young female Saudi-Palestinian artist Dana Awartani, who applies modern interpretations to traditional Islamic geometric styles; the Saudi photographer, sculptor and performance artist Ahmed Mater; and Abdulrahman Al-Soliman from the Kingdom, whose Cubist-inspired work ‘Worshipers leaving the mosque’ sold for over $170,000 in 2018.

Another recent driver for the art market, not just in Saudi Arabia but across the world, is the move from live to online auctions. 

Historically, Sotheby’s conducted auctions at its showrooms in London, New York and other sales houses in Europe and Dubai — with some bidders phoning in from around the world.

But given the global nature of this business, and more recently, restrictions due to COVID-19, auction houses have moved to internet-based sales.

Sotheby’s Head of Sales in Dubai Mai Edlib said: “The beauty of online auctions is that we've been able to get traction from clients who were not known to us in the past.

“It's such a democratic, easy and accessible way for new and especially young collectors to start bidding and buying.”

Auction sales of modern contemporary art across the Middle East and North Africa slowed to $21 million last year, due to disruption caused by the pandemic, according to professional services firm Deloitte Art & Finance Report 2021.

'Worshippers leaving the Mosque' by Abdulrahman Al Soliman fetched $182,000 in 2018 - the existing record for any Saudi artist

But as most auctions in the region have now gone online the market rebounded in the first half of this year to stand at $27 million.

Deloitte said: “This means 2021 could potentially be a record year for Middle Eastern modern and contemporary art.”

The contemporary art market’s top year over the last decade in the region was 2016 when sales hit $36 million, said the professional services firm.

Live auctions in Saudi Arabia may happen in the future, but for now, Sotheby’s continues to build relationships with collectors while presenting educational events in the Kingdom — for example in collaboration with Jeddah-based Art Jameel and the Diriyah Biennale, a major artistic and cultural event beginning in Riyadh on Dec. 11.

These events include lectures on design and fine art, broadening the scope of Sotheby’s marketing activities in the Kingdom — a move away from its more exclusive approach of the past.

What is the auctioneer’s advice to potential Saudi collectors of art and other valuables?

Gibbs said: “First of all, buy with your eyes and not your ears.

“That means to buy what you love and to love what you buy. These are passion assets, as well as tangible and financial assets. Art is to be enjoyed, to be lived with and to be a pleasure on a daily basis.

“Broader advice would be to educate yourself as much as possible, to do your research, to attend exhibitions and gallery openings, visit museums, go to art fairs and to seek out trusted advisors.”

As the Kingdom becomes more culturally and economically diverse, its market for art and collectibles looks set to mushroom over the next decade. Collecting valuables is easier and more accessible than ever before, and this presents exciting opportunities for both collectors and artists in Saudi Arabia.