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A Solid Start for Turkish Art at Sotheby’s Inaugural London Sale

Sotheby’s held its first auction of Turkish contemporary art on March 4.

LONDON—Sotheby’s held its first auction of Turkish contemporary art on March 4. The sale was planned a year ago, following the move of Ali Can Ertug, a specialist in 19th-century European art, from Christie’s to Sotheby’s, where he was appointed senior vice president, strategic business development. A Turkish speaker, Ertug collaborated with Dalya Islam of Sotheby’s department of Islamic art and consultant Isabella Içöz in putting the sale together. Among them the three sourced 71 lots, with a combined estimate of £1.1 million/1.6 million, from collectors in Europe, the U.S. and Turkey, as well as from galleries specializing in or representing Turkish artists.

Auction sales in Turkey, which have included modern art but little contemporary art, have quadrupled in the last eight years, growing to $45.6 million last year from $10.2 million in 2000. The average auction price has increased by 316 percent in the same period, according to ­emerging-market analysts ArtTactic. At the same time, there has been a boom in local art institutions and young galleries. With Christie’s successful sale of Turkish art in its Dubai auction last October and Sotheby’s opening of a branch in Istanbul (ANL, 3/3/09), which is scheduled to be Europe’s “Capital of Culture” in 2010, the timing seemed propitious.

The onset of the recession, however, turned the sale, which included many young artists whose work had never been sold at auction before, into a much riskier exercise. It was nip-and-tuck for much of the session, with 21, or 30 percent, of the lots on offer going unsold, and half of the 50 lots that did sell going for prices either at or below their low estimates.

But these were balanced by some ­multiple-estimate prices, including the top price of the sale, the £193,250 ($271,767) paid for Untitled, 1961, an Abstract Expressionist–style painting by Mübin Orhon, who worked in Paris from the 1950s (estimate: £60,000/80,000). The same telephone buyer who bought the Orhon work also claimed the next-highest lot, Le Minautore, circa 1958, by Fahrel­nissa Zeid—who also practiced abstraction with the Postwar Paris school of Serge Poliakoff and Hans Hartung—for £82,250 ($120,000) against an estimate of £50,000/70,000.

In the end, the auction brought in £1.3 million ($1.8 million), a result which probably ensures that this will not be the last sale of its kind. Although the bulk of the total came from 20th-century works, more recent works also performed well. The top contemporary lot was Taner Ceylan’s hyperrealist oil on canvas Spiritual, 2008, which sold for £70,850 ($99,600) on an estimate of £30,000/40,000. Among the more internationally recognized artists whose work was featured in the sale were Haluk Akakçe, whose mirror sculpture Untitled, 2007, sold for £21,875 ($30,800) on an estimate of £18,000/22,000, and the U.K.-born Mustafa Hulusi. Max Wigram, the London dealer who represents Hulusi, was delighted when the artist’s large painting Grapes I, 2007, sold—albeit within the £15,000/20,000 estimate—for £18,750 ($26,370). “That was more than the prices I ask in the gallery,” Wigram said.

According to auction-house officials, 66 percent of the buyers were new to Sotheby’s, and hailed from Turkey, Asia, the Middle East, Europe and North America. Although many records must have been set, none were claimed by Sotheby’s, partly because some artists were new to the auction market and partly because price records in Turkey had not been verified.

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