A Hundred Million Dollar Market

Turkish art hits the show windows on November 24th. And there is good reason to gather information and be prepared.

he ‘Contemporary Istanbul Art Fair’, the fifth of which will be held at the Lütfî Kırdar Convention and Exhibition Centre November 24-28, has sparked an important development by boosting interest in art and spawning new collectors. Raising the benchmark higher by the year, Contemporary Istanbul has increased the number of foreign galleries to the point that close to half of those taking part this year are coming from abroad. With 35 galleries from abroad and 41 from Turkey participating, the event aims to draw Berlin’s leading contemporary representatives to Istanbul through a cooperation with the Berlin Association. Visited by some 52,000 people last year, the fair played host to 307 artists and welcomed 73 galleries Turkish and foreign. Sixty-eight percent of the works displayed found buyers. But the road has not been easy for Contemporary Istanbul, which targets raising all those figures this year. Here’s the story.

A look back at the approximately 150-year history of western style painting in Turkey reveals that buying and selling are a very recent phenomenon. Up to the 1930’s not only did painters never dream of selling their works, even exhibiting them was difficult. Truth be told, those years were a period when artists simply gifted their paintings to people who admired them.

The opening of the first professional art galleries in the 1950’s created the first ever opportunity to try to buy and sell. Due to inadequate proceeds, however, most of the galleries that did open eventually closed, a situation that persisted up to the mid-1970s and was the primary reason no art market developed in Turkey. Unlike their predecessors, the galleries that began to open one by one starting from the mid-70’s succeeded in persuading the country’s middle class to invest in paintings, making it possible to speak for the first time of an art economy in Turkey.
Even though paintings had now become a commodity that was bought and sold, prices were still painfully low. And the paintings that did sell tended to be not those of living artists but of painters of the so-called Classical and Impressionist periods in Turkish painting. Among them, Osman Hamdi Bey, şeker Ahmet Paşa, Süleyman Seyyid, Halil Paşa, Hoca Ali Rıza, ibrahim Çallı, Hikmet Onat, Sami Yetik, Avni Lifij and Namık ismail were the most popular.
Owing to intense demand from 1975 through the mid-1980’s, Classical and Impressionistic Turkish painting became an increasingly rare commodity which, when it could be found, sold for quite astronomical figures for the time. This new situation signaled a fresh start, and for the first time the paintings of living Turkish artists, which had previously sold only sporadically, began to attract the interest of collectors.

Art fairs began to be organized in Turkey in the mid-1980’s. The art activities organized at the former Yıldız Palace Arsenal under the name, ‘Antique and Art Fair’, were followed by the ‘Istanbul Art Fair’ held at Tepebaşı in 1991. Although the Turkish art market continued to gather momentum up to the year 2000, it was only after that that it really took off, almost doubling in volume every year since.
One of the reasons for the change is an increase in the number of art fairs mounted in Turkey since 2000. The ‘Artist Istanbul Art Fair’, Artistanbul, organized since 2002 by the Art Galleries Association, ‘Art Forum Ankara’ and the ‘Ankara Art Fair’, which got underway in Ankara in 2005, as well as ‘Artshow’, ‘Art Bosphorus’ and the ‘Aegean Art Days’ held every year in Izmir, are just some of the names responsible for this transformation. And 2006 when Contemporary Istanbul appeared on the scene marked an important departure. By drawing on past experience and offering year-round panel discussions and other activities, Contemporary Istanbul stands out for putting on a fair with an intellectual infrastructure that attracts buyers and sellers.

In 1991 when the first plastic arts fairs were mounted in Turkey, the annual volume of the country’s art market was one to two million dollars. Today it is over a hundred million - a growth in which the fairs, along with other aspects of the art market, have had a big hand. The opening of the private art museums starting with Istanbul Modern in 2004 should also not be overlooked.

If the art market continues to grow at this pace, it will not be surprising at all to see the names of Turkish collectors on art lovers’ list and the works of Turkish artists in the hands of the world’s leading collectors in the next five to ten years. A sector created by galleries, auctions and fairs and further boosted by museums and collectors, the Turkish art market is ushering in a period in which new records are broken and new artists discovered by the day and world-famous painters are visiting our city. Some of them emerge as public figures, others withdraw into their shells to create new masterpieces.

Burhan Doğançay, for example, who lived and worked in the U.S. for many years facing myriad difficulties, set a record with his work entitled, ‘Blue Symphony’, which sold for 2,200,000 liras in early 2010. The reverberations have not died down yet. At the same time this also represents the largest figure ever paid in Turkey for a work by a living artist. Another name that rose to prominence this year is Erol Akyavaş, who made news recently with the sale of his painting, ‘The Siege’, for 2,100,000 liras. The works of this young artist, who, like Doğançay, lived in the U.S. for many years, have played a key role in the rise of Turkey’s art market.

Works that a few years ago sold for two to three thousand liras due to a dearth of collectors are now going for thirty to forty thousand liras thanks to a sudden boom in their numbers. Nevertheless, we will do well to remember this: There are still a lot of artists waiting to be discovered, and art fairs are the most convenient venues for getting to know them and for following hundreds of different artists at once.