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Through Art Market & You, Art From Us provides you with Analysis, Opinion and Factual Reports regarding the current on-goings of the Global Art Market. In this article, we look at the Abraaj Group Art Collection

Earlier this year, Dubai’s private equity firm Abraaj Group was accused of mismanaging investor funds. Following which its founder Arif Naqvi surrendered the company. The ensuing investigation revealed a debt of over $1 billion the company owed its creditors. Recently the company went into liquidation. As part of this it sold off its private art collection at auction through Christie’s and Bonhams, in late October 2018.

Abraaj Group : Role in the Middle Eastern Art World

Abraaj Capital was a forerunner in the promotion of Arts & Culture in the MENASA region (Middle East, North Africa and South Africa). Most importantly, the firm was the prime sponsor of the Gulf Art Fair (now art Dubai) for the first crucial decade since its launch in 2007. The fair currently attracts thousands of visitors and is a significant event for Middle Eastern art market.

With a view to provide suitable opportunities to fresh talent, the firm set up the Abraaj Royal College of Art Innovation Scholarship in 2014. Each year, the committee would chose five exceptional students for a fully paid scholarship to the Royal College of Art. In addition to student funding, Abraaj also provided a platform to young professional artists through the Abraaj Capital Art Prize, set up in 2008. The awardee of the Dh734,000 ($200,000) prize was expected to create a specially commissioned artwork for Abraaj’s private collection.

This brings us to the art collection itself. Abraaj decidedly curated their collection to reflect the various flavours of the region, without compromising on quality. Spanning beyond Africa, India and the Middle East, and including works by Rashid Rana, Mohammed Ehsai, Manjit Bawa and Francis Souza parts of Abraaj’s collection have travelled internationally for exhibition. During its existence, Abraaj has arguably attempted to democratise the western-focused art historical canon, through its multi-faceted promotion of regional art.

The Collection : From Beginning to End

Private firms have been investing in art ever since they realised the core benefits of cultural commodification. Having an art collection not only enhances goodwill, but also acts as collateral for a rainy day. Abraaj began collecting prior to the financial crash in 2000. The collection is split into two categories : works that are owned by the firm and works that are privately owned by its founder, Arif Naqvi.

The auction of Abraaj’s art collection in London has been termed a ‘Fire Sale’. The works were sold to cushion the blow that hit the company earlier this year, irrespective of current market climate. Consequently, prices realised for most lots were less than impressive, but the sales were an essential part of the company’s liquidation and debt-settlement process. A number of lots offered, including works by Parvis Tanavoli, had no reserve price.

At Bonhams, Abraaj sold about 200 works for their collection. The works were interspersed through various sales, namely, Modern and Contemporary South Asian Art and Art of Pakistan, Modern and Contemporary Middle Eastern Art Sale and Indian and Islamic Art. Bonhams will offer the remaining works in an online sale to be held in Novemeber 2018.

The star lot of the first sale was Manjit Bawa’s  Untitled. The work exceeded its pre-sale estimate of £150,000-250,000 and sold for £476,750.

Market Strategy : An Auction at London

It would be interesting to explore why Abraaj opted to sell its works through Bonhams and Chrities in London. The firm had several alternative routes available to liquidate its collection. The works could have been sold locally, in an attempt to keep the collection within national territory, though admittedly this was not the company’s top priority.

An alternative to selling the works through the tertiary market would be to sell them privately. The decision to sell through auction probably had more to do with the enthusiasm that surrounds the sale of prestigious private collections. Such sales, especially ones based out of London, tend to promote themselves.

Another point of contemplation for Abraaj would have been mapping the maximum density of collectors of Middle Eastern & Indian art. In deciding between the two big art cities – London & New York, the company would have chosen the one that would ensure maximum sales. In the past, the Dubai art market was very attractive to collectors due to the non-existence of taxes on goods. However, the market was forced to rethink strategy with the UAE’s recent introduction of VAT.

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