Taking Stock

The National
February 1, 2010

ISTANBUL “Hell no, angrily no,” says Galeri x-ist art director Kerimcan Guleryuz when asked if excitement about Turkish contemporary art exceeds the supply of real talent here. “They don’t know what they’re talking about. It’s not hype.” By “they” he means the collectors and gallery owners—and there are many—who are wondering if the Turkish art market is being set up for a fall.

There’s a tulip-craze feeling in the Turkish art world, to be sure. The market is notable for its “dramatic growth,” says Ali Can Ertu?, Sotheby’s senior vice-president for strategic business development in the Middle East. “There’s a great deal of excitement around its emergence on the international art scene,” he adds, calling Istanbul a “prime candidate” for Sotheby’s expansion plans.

Sotheby’s opened an office in Istanbul last February and launched its inaugural sale of Turkish contemporary art last spring, devoting a whole department to it. In October, Christie’s included what it billed as the “most important selection of Turkish art ever offered at auction” in its modern and contemporary sale in Dubai.

The Istanbul Biennial in September generated still more attention, as did the naming of Istanbul as 2010’s Cultural Capital of Europe. Turkish artists are hot commodities in galleries abroad, with Selma Gürbüz at the Tate Modern and Kutlu? Ataman shortlisted for the Turner Prize. Turkey’s AKBANK is now sponsoring an exhibition of Turkish contemporary art in Dubai, at the Cuadro Fine Arts Gallery, featuring major works by Haluk Akakçe, Nazif Topçuo?lu, Selma Gürbüz, Taner Ceylan and ?nci Eviner.

The prices reported at auctions, above all, are eye-raising. Burhan Do?ançay’s “Mavi Senfoni” (Blue Symphony) recently sold for more than two million dollars, the highest price ever paid for a work by a living Turkish painter. The value of the domestic Turkish art auction market, it has been reported, has quadrupled in the past eight years.

Notable, however—and odd—is that since the recession began, the art market elsewhere has been in deep trouble. Sotheby’s and Christie’s have laid off employees. Arts circles are full of chatter about a buyers’ market. In most of the world, prices are going down. Why should Turkey be the exception?

“Turkish contemporary art is still relatively affordable and young, in comparison to other collecting categories,” says Ertu?. “Turkey has a strong and diverse economy and a notable concentration of wealth. It has a young generation with an enthusiasm for and a desire to acquire art.”

Aylin Seçkin of Istanbul Bilgi University, an economist of art and culture, largely agrees. “The recent developments in the Turkish art market should be examined in view of the macroeconomic dynamics,” she says. “Turkey has a growing young-investor population with increasing incomes. They invest in art as well as in stocks. I don’t think the Turkish art market is over-hyped. It’s still a relatively cheap and promising market for foreign investors.”

But other collectors and consultants have doubts—big doubts. According to Isabella Içöz, an independent art consultant who advises Sotheby’s on their Turkish contemporary art collection, “You can’t take auction results at face value. When you read that a work has sold at auction at a certain price, you have to ask, ‘Has it actually sold? Who sold it back?’ A sale didn’t necessarily take place.”

Içöz describes the way auctions are conducted here as “not technically illegal, but possibly unethical. The prices may be artificially driven up to drive someone’s reputation or boost a collection. It happens more often than it should. Auto-consignment isn’t illegal here. So someone might have 20 works by an artist, he puts one up, it sells high, the other 19 go up in value. I think it’s a very dangerous game they’re playing. You’re looking at a very inflated figure overall. You can get accurate figures from Sotheby’s and Christie’s, they’re very transparent. That, plus figures from the major galleries, gives you a better idea what’s going on. But no one really knows.”

Içöz worries about the long-term implications of this game. Foreign collectors, she notes, have a tendency to “buy up for two years, rape the market, then go elsewhere. Only a handful of true international collectors are coming here and looking at the market in a mature, sophisticated, deeper way.”

On the one hand, she says, “this is normal, organic and typical. Turkey is in a much better position than China or India, because it has longstanding galleries that have been around for 25 years.”

But on the other, “The responsibility of a gallery and a collector is to the local art market. Inflating prices with no real research is not responsible to the artists’ careers. Where is it going to go? To a big crash to their reputations. We’ve seen that in India, China, Iran. It’s not responsible to collectors who have invested for the right reasons. Every day articles are written about how so-and-so painting sold for record-breaking prices, but not one articles asks, ‘What’s going on below the surface?’”

Many collectors, she suspects, “will wake up in ten years and realize they’re sitting on a lot of rubbish.”

Guleryuz, on the other hand, who founded Galeri x-ist to promote young Turkish artists who do not yet have a wide audience, argues that the rumors of hype are themselves over-hyped. “In reality, the market is getting cleaner and better. Some of the foreign consultants might be naïve about what it used to be like.”

The enthusiasm, he says, is justified by Turkey’s position as a center of globally relevant artistic innovation. “It makes so much sense that Turkey should be the next big thing. It’s not an accident. We have the key to the issues the world is going to be struggling with for the next 25 years. We’re the remains of an empire, the residue of this humongous problem the world is going to have to come to grips with. It’s East versus West at its fundamental core. This is not a coincidence. This is not a passing fad.”

Içöz’s reservations, however, are widely shared by other gallery owners and art consultants in Istanbul. One of the great éminences grises of the Turkish art world, Haldun Dosto?lu of Galeri Nev, agrees that “manipulation and speculation is very dangerous for the art market—and it’s risen dramatically in the past year.” He wonders just who is buying this art at these prices. “The people who are buying right now, I don’t know them. It’s obvious that they’re speculating. It’s easier to manipulate the art market than the stock exchange.”

The sales statistics noted in the news, agrees corporate art consultant and BoltArt.net editor Károly Aliotti, “are ridiculous.”

“Everything about the process is wrong,” says another prominent gallery owner. “Behind the galleries are certain rich people. They’re the partners of the galleries, and they’re the ones who are buying. Some are involved in money laundering, smuggling. There’s 50 billion dollars worth of narcotics flowing in from Afghanistan, Iran. You can’t put that money in the bank, but you can put it in art. Fifty percent of the money in this business is dirty. They don’t even open the package, they just put it in the storage room.”

Yah?i Baraz of the Baraz Gallery, who has been in the sector for 35 years, also asks just who is buying these works from Sotheby’s and Christie’s. “Usually,” he says, “after a sale, we know who bought the painting within a year—we see it hanging in someone’s salon. But now people are buying stuff, and we’re not seeing it.”

This is, perhaps, because the works are not hanging anywhere. “The majority of people are buying for investment only,” says Içöz. “The stuff is going into warehouses.”

Few here agree with Sotheby’s Ertu? that the driving force behind this acquisitional frenzy is “enthusiasm for art.” “Turks follow fashions and trends,” says Içöz. “So what’s popular in New York and London is replicated here. Art’s a status symbol. Your friends know you’ve made it if you’ve got art on your wall, it cements your place in society. The Turkish art market is still much more about collectors than artists. It’s still about ‘Who’s buying what?’ If you buy something and you’re well known, then twenty others will do it.”

“To play in art is fashionable now,” agrees Dosto?lu. “It’s a trend—‘Oh, I was in Miami!’” In part, he suspects, this is because the Turkish stock market is comparatively stable. “Interest rates have decreased, so people want to play in the more volatile areas. They need a new investment arena. In art there are no controls, no regulation, no policing.”

One consultant believes the hype has its origins in a strategic decision, by Sotheby’s, to promote the Turkish art world in the hopes of tapping a larger Islamic market. “The Moslem world adores Turkey,” he says. “So Sotheby’s decided to plug Turkey because that’s where it’s at—It’s catchy, trendy, Turkish! The potential clientele turned it into an ‘emerging market.’”

“Sotheby’s and Christies,” agrees another major gallery owner, “are involved in monkey business in this country.”

But if there are clearly elements of exaggeration and faddism here, equally clearly there is a genuine and growing public interest in art. Recent years have seen the opening of new private museums such as the Sabanc? Museum, Istanbul Modern, Pera Museum, and Santral Istanbul. Television and radio channels have introduced programs presenting popular artists, and a growing number of magazine and newspaper editorial pages are now dedicated solely to art.

Despite her reservations, Içöz too believes there’s much worth looking at here. “Turkish art appeals to collectors because a lot of work is very international in outlook. It’s exciting for someone in the US to realize that people here are experiencing the same questions as they are,” she says, noting the dominance of themes, in local works, that raise universal questions: “What is the role of the artist in society? What does it mean to be gay in a country that’s predominantly Moslem? Feminism? The role of the military? Problems with terrorism?”

“I’m passionate about this art,” she says. “I just want collection to be done in a responsible manner.”

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