SHAFAQNA – In Tehran’s luxurious Grand Azadi hotel, a row of women dressed in black with red headscarves hold the lines open to bidders as the auctioneer tries to conjure up increasingly large sums with his hammer. As artworks are displayed, prices in the tens of billions of Iranian rials – hundreds of thousands of pounds – light up the large Samsung screen on the wall. In the crowd are some familiar faces including actors, politicians and the retired Iranian football star Ali Daei.
The auction of modern and contemporary Iranian art, which is jockeying to be among the big auctions in the Middle East, is an annual event and was being held for the fourth time. But this year was different: the prices that were bid were astonishing for a country still struggling with international sanctions. And the auction, held on Friday, made nearly double what had been predicted, totalling £4.3m.
A tree trunk painting by celebrated Iranian poet and painter Sohrab Sepehri sold for around 28bn rials (£560,000), becoming the most expensive painting ever sold in Iran. Other works that attracted large sums include those of the New York-based artist Manoucher Yektai and sculptor Parviz Tanavoli, as well as pieces by Bahman Mohassess and Aydin Aghdashloo.
“It exceeded our expectations,” a Tehran auction spokeswoman told the Guardian. “We sold almost 180% … [of] what we had estimated. We had buyers both from inside and outside Iran. Out of 126 works that had been presented, 125 of them were sold.”
Due to sanctions, Iran’s banking system is cut off from the outside world but that did not stop international bidders participating in the auction. “Foreigners had an intermediary paying on their behalf in Tehran,” the spokeswoman said. The event was sponsored by Samsung’s Iran branch, among other companies.
Shiva Balaghi, a cultural historian of the Middle East at Brown University, said the auction showed art purchases were increasing in Iran. “The growing art market in Iran is significant and is sustained by a new generation of local collectors,” she said. “The recent Tehran auctions have been showing consistently strong prices. There has been notable interest in Iranian modern masters like Sohrab Sepehri, Marcos Grigorian and Parviz Tanavoli.”
Interest in Iranian art from the 1950s through the 1970s is also strong on the international front among private collectors and museums, Balaghi said. “Though prices for these works are rising, they are still fairly modest compared to their western counterparts,” she said. “For relatively smaller sums, one can build a significant collection of modern and contemporary Iranian art. So for Iranians, art is a smart financial investment as well as a way to tap into one’s cultural heritage.”
The record for the most expensive Iranian artwork was set by Tanavoli’s sculpture Oh Persepolis, which sold for $2.8m (£1.8m) at Christie’s Dubai in 2008.
Balaghi added that the sanctions will mean art auctions in Tehran will be largely limited to domestic collectors. She said: “The integration of the Iranian art market with the international art market will only really happen when sanctions are lifted.”
Nicky Nodjoumi, whose ink on paper work The Accident was recently acquired by the British Museum, also had a work sold in Tehran on Friday. An Iranian art journal has put him in the list of top 10 Iranian artists. “There has been some criticism to the auction but overall, I think it’s a positive move,” Nodjoumi told the Guardian. “It would be a financial help to Iranian artists, something that we didn’t have much in the past.”
Nodjoumi’s acrylic work in Tehran’s auction, called Last Touch, was the first piece by him to have gained official permission for sale inside Iran. He has many works that have been critical of the Iranian establishment. “I couldn’t believe the sums I was hearing from the auction,” he said. “It is a question for people like me that how can a country be under sanctions and then sell works in such staggering amounts?”
According to the Tehran Times, the famous Iranian actor Reza Kianian, who conducted the auction, said: “We didn’t think that we could organise the second edition of the Tehran auction and now, I am happy that the fourth edition is being held.”
The auction is run by Alireza Sami-Azar, a former head of Tehran’s Museum of Contemporary Art, which has a hidden treasure of original works by the likes of Jackson Pollock, Francis Bacon, Andy Warhol, Edvard Munch, René Magritte and Mark Rothko.
The attitude of Iranian politicians towards art is also changing. Last month, Tehran’s mayor replaced billboards ads in the city with art pieces by local and international artists, including Picasso and Magritte, for a period of 10 days.