Everywhere I went in Istanbul last May, during the aptly named “Istancool” culture festival, it seemed that Tate Modern’s curator of international art, Jessica Morgan, had just been there, making the rounds and sniffing about the galleries, as their proprietors were eager to tell me. The situation was once unthinkable, according to the veteran dealer Haldun Dostoglu, a cofounder of one of the city’s oldest modern-and-contemporary galleries, Galeri Nev: “Fifteen years ago, it was almost impossible for me to imagine selling an artwork to the British.”
In a remarkable about-face, the market for Turkish art has soared, both within and without the country. The inaugural sale of Turkish modern and contemporary art at Sotheby’s London in March 2009 was a bright spot in an otherwise tanking global market, with 50 of the 71 lots selling, nearly all within or above estimate. The total climbed from £1,307,400 ($1.8 million) to £2,436,850 ($3.8 mil- lion) in 2010. By the following spring, Phillips de Pury & Company was in on the action with a selling exhibition of contemporary Turkish art at the Saatchi Gallery in London. New York galleries like Paul Kasmin and Lehmann Maupin were testing the waters of the Istanbul market. Judging by the number of special fair sections and exhibitions devoted to the country’s artists this year and next, interest in Turkey appears to have reached a fever pitch.
Yet the result at the Sotheby’s sale this past spring was a sharply diminished £1,531,175 ($2.5 million), nearly half of which came courtesy of Nejad Melih Devrim’s Abstract Composition, 1952. According to the sale’s director, Elif Bayoglu, the prime-period painting was chased by at least four bidders and more than doubled the high estimate by earning £735,650 ($1.2 million), an artist record and the house’s highest price achieved in the category. But works by bankable modernists with crossover appeal, such as Erol Akyavas, Burhan Dogançay, Mübin Orhon, and Fahrelnissa Zeid, flopped on the block, and the reception accorded formerly hot younger artists like Taner Ceylan was palpably cooler. Most of the 36 works that sold just met their estimate at the hammer.
Sotheby's was not alone in feeling the pinch; Bonhams, which had unveiled a competing sale in 2011, elected not to hold one in 2012. (Christie's folds its Modern and Contemporary Turkish offerings into its biannual sale of Art, Iranian and Turkish art in Dubai.) Some blamed consigning galleries for putting up works by artists whose markets were not yet mature. Others even speculated about collusion among elite buyers to keep prices down. As Kristina Sanne, of the London-based art consultancy Sanne Grunberg, observes, "The excitement has created opportunism that in itself causes uncertainty and lack of confidence." Whatever the causes, the takeaway for many observers was that the party was over.
While the Turkish market has been subject to breathless descriptions like “boom” and “bubble” in the international press, the reality is much more nuanced and complex. The Istanbul-based art adviser and curator Isabella Icoz, who works with local and international clients (Lehmann Maupin among them), points out, “These were unfortunate labels to begin with, because they set up all of these unrealistic expectations.” Within the country, tales of short-term profiteering are outweighed by long-term trends of broad — and deepening — development in the auction, collector, gallery, and fair sectors.
Although Sotheby’s maintains an office in Istanbul, and Phillips de Pury has been making quiet inroads since 2000, the auction territory is fully staked out by 35 houses operating domestically. The most important for modern and contemporary art are Antik A.S., founded in 1981 by Turgay Artam, and Aziz Karadeniz’s Beyaz Müzayede, founded in 2006, which hold up to four annual sales of a couple of hundred works each. Antik organized its first modern sale in 1989, yet prior to 2008 the sector accounted for just 15 percent of the house’s revenue. Last year Antik reported a total turnover of about $35 million, 60 percent of which was for modern and contemporary art. This past March, a huge canvas by Akyavas, En-el Hak, 1987, notched a new high for a Turkish contemporary work when it sold for TL 2,777,700 ($1.54 million) in an auction that took in more than $5 million total.
Olgaç Artam, Antik’s polished CEO and head auctioneer, is upbeat about the market’s prospects. “Since 2009 there has been a huge amount of demand and a limited number of quality works,” he explains, “which makes us think values will continue to rise as the number of buyers goes up.” Serious Turkish collectors, he adds, “are after the best of the best” and are willing to fight for masterpieces like the Akyavas. But, he cautions, paintings of that quality are rare. And with only five percent of his clients coming from outside the country, Turkish art should still be considered an “emerging local market.”
Not everyone is pleased with the influence exerted by domestic auctions. “For contemporary art, the auction houses are not the secondary market, they are players in the primary market, ” explains Moiz Zilberman, owner and director of Galeri Cda projects gallery, and the new art space Kat I. “Artists are producing directly for the auction houses and galleries are consigning [new work] to auction houses.” As Sanne points out, in a speculative market, a less than stellar debut on the block can have a detrimental effect on an artist’s developing career. “The galleries take the time to promote good quality artists, who are then sadly zapped by the auctions,” she says. In Icoz’s view, the international houses are no better. Acknowledging the problem, Zilberman says, “As a gallerist, I try to sell only to collectors, not to people who will put the works right back into auction.” But, he admits, “It’s not easy.”
Art is experiencing an unprecedented vogue in Turkey even given the long history of patronage from powerful families. One of them, the Eczacıbası clan, was responsible for the founding of the Istanbul Biennial in 1987, which has enjoyed increasing international prominence. The 2011 edition, curated by Jens Hoffmann and Adriano Pedrosa, received 110,000 visitors, more than double the number seen in 2005. A wave of private museums opened in the city during the past decade: the Sakip Sabanci Museum, in 2002; Istanbul Modern, in 2004; and the Suna and Inan Kiraç Foundation’s Pera Museum, in 2005. (Notwithstanding his government’s antipathy toward many aspects of liberal culture, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan cut the ribbon on Istanbul Modern, a private museum founded by Oya Eczacıbası.) And absent real governmental support, private-sector patronage dominates, with major banks like Garanti, Akbank, and Yapi Kredi as well as corporations sponsoring their own white-box platforms.
More to the point, Turkey has money to burn, having seen an explosion in entrepreneurship since 1980, when a military coup led to the dismantling of state-run industries. Rebuffed when they tried to join the Euro zone, it turns out the Turks are better off without that albatross. Today there are nearly as many billionaires in Turkey as there are in France and Japan combined, and in this context, as Kerimcan Güleryüz, son of the painter Mehmet Güleryüz and founder of the Empire Project gallery, quips, “Art is the new Ukrainian top model on the arm of the fat man.”
Those on the scene agree that there are about 20 to 25 collectors who can be characterized as “serious,” spending more than $200,000 on art annually, but many more — Dostoglu thinks perhaps as many as 500 — who are buying on a smaller scale. There is perhaps no better emblem of the speed and ferocity of the new collector class than Çengiz Çetindogan, head of the Demsa Group, the agent within Turkey for international luxury brands such as Harvey Nichols, Dolce & Gabbana, and Longchamp. In the last decade, he and his wife, Demet Sabanci, have amassed a comprehensive collection of works, with a particular strength in paintings, from the Ottoman era to the present day, and have engaged Zaha Hadid to design an exhibition venue — the country’s first purpose-built art museum — along the Golden Horn, the strait that bisects the European side of the city. Thomas Krens’s firm, Global Cultural Asset Management, will manage the collection.
Several Western dealers say they particularly enjoy working with their Turkish clients. “They are younger than the average collector in the United States, and definitely younger than the average collector in Europe,” observes Rachel Lehmann. Emerging markets tend to spend time catching up on their own artists before turning toward international art, but “in Turkey this is happening in tandem,” she says. Regis Krampf, who has longstanding ties to clients in the region, agrees: “I find them to be very daring, willing to take a risk.” This fall he shuttered his New York gallery to go all-in in Istanbul, leasing a four-floor space in Tophane, once a rough quarter akin to New York’s Lower East Side that is now bristling with galleries and cafés. “I’m looking forward to bringing a lot of Western artists, like Marc Quinn and Yinka Shonibare, who have never shown in Turkey,” he says.
Aside from the incursions by galleries from the U.S. and Europe promoting international art, a major shift in the past three years is the diversification of the local market, with younger collectors entering and buying more broadly, from emerging Turkish artists as well as international names. The sons and daughters of the privileged classes, educated abroad, have brought a cognizance of Western art back to Istanbul. Icoz believes the expansion toward international contemporary art will have a stabilizing effect on the market overall, as prices for Turkish art are put in perspective and onerous import taxes on art — up to 30 percent — make speculative buying a less attractive proposition.
Over the past decade, the number of commercial galleries in Istanbul has mushroomed from a dozen to more than 200, by some estimates. A handful stand out for the seriousness of their programs. Two that receive curatorial accolades are Pi Artworks, founded in 1998 by Yesim Turanli, who represents established midcareer Turks like Gulay Semercioglu and Irfan Onürmen alongside international talents, such as the Egyptian-German artist Susan Hefuna; and Rodeo, founded by Sylvia Kouvali in 2008, who shows Turkey’s 2009 Venice representative Banu Cennetoglu, Emre Hüner, and the Cairo- and New York–based conceptualist Iman Issa.
One Art Nouveau building on the bustling pedestrian thoroughfare Istiklal Caddesi houses a private collector’s showroom and eight galleries, including Galeri Nev, founded by Dostoglu and Ali Artun in Ankara in 1984 and home to the Turkish blue chips, including Canan Tolon, Hale Tenger, and the video artist Ali Kazma, who will represent Turkey in next year’s Venice Biennale. Every day scores of visitors tramp up and down the marble staircase of the Misir Apartment, almost all of them foreigners who have come for the galleries. “They know where to go,” Dostoglu says mockingly. “They have a list of names.” The veteran dealer looks askance at the meteoric rise of the market for Turkish art, though he has certainly profited. “As a gallerist I have a mission. I invest all my life in the same mission: to make my artists be seen first by the local audience, and then the international audience,” he says. Despite his professed ambivalence toward the new found art enthusiasm, Dostoglu says he is encouraged by the movement in the lower rungs, the new galleries, many run by women: “This world used to be very masculine; now that’s changing.”
Galeri Manâ, owned by the London-based collector Mehves Ariburnu, is a newcomer with international ambitions, having opened in a 19th-century wheat mill in 2011.The director since January, young Arzu Komili can take credit for snagging Kutlug Ataman, who had bypassed representation in his native Turkey for years. Komili grew up in Istanbul, part of a family whose name is plastered on bottles of olive oil in grocery stores; she studied art history and visual arts at Princeton and worked for Sotheby’s and Paul Kasmin in New York. She also headed Kasmin’s ultimately ill-fated launch into the Turkish market — Kasmin chose not to pursue the venture after a show of David LaChapelle photographs last winter — and brings a measured perspective. “I think when you look from the outside it seems like a bit more is happening than really is,” she says. At the same time, she’s been astonished by how quickly things are changing in Tophane.
When I paid a call this past spring, Manâ was showing the photographer Taryn Simon, who is represented by Gagosian Gallery and was exhibiting concurrently at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Within the first week, Komili had sold “more than five” works. Coming from the New York context, “I have a problem with the prices in the Turkish art market for artists who have not yet established themselves internationally,” she admits. She hoped the Simon show would “demonstrate to collectors how affordable well-known artists can be.” Her program alternates between Turkish artists like Murat Akagündüz and international stars like Douglas Gordon. The current group show includes Simon Starling and Olafur Eliasson.
Distinctive even among the new breed of galleries is two-year-old Rampa — founded by husband-and-wife architects Murat Arif Suyabatmaz and Leyla Tara Suyabatmaz — a slick, cavernous space near the W Hotel in the trendy Akaretler neighborhood. The roster includes almost exclusively Turkish names, but most came with reputations established abroad: the German-Turkish artist Nevin Aladag, Erinç Seymen, and Cengiz Çekil, regarded as the country’s father of conceptual art. Rampa has shrewdly chosen the long view, mounting museum-worthy presentations of their 14 artists and issuing monographs. “Some of the artists did not show in Istanbul for a long time before working with us,” the gallery’s PR manager, Ustüngel Inanç, explains. “We think it’s important to show the art scene a survey of what the artists have been doing.” Rampa also markets intensively outside the country, courting international curators and loading up the calendar with fairs. “People think that [Turkish art] is something different than the practice happening in London or wherever, but it’s not,” explains sales director Mehtap Öztürk. The gallery reported brisk sales at Frieze New York, as well as strong interest from Asian buyers in Nilbar Güres’s whimsically feminist depictions of domestic scenes at ArtHK. The extraordinary growth of the international art-fair circuit has been crucial to the visibility and dissemination of Turkish art. Istanbul itself has four art fairs, the most significant of which, Contemporary Istanbul, welcomed 90 exhibitors and 62,000 visitors last year, almost as many as Frieze London’s 68,000 in 2011. To the disappointment of some, nearly 80 percent of the artists on display were of Turkish origin. “Some collectors were hoping for slightly more prestigious international galleries,” says Icoz. “They were drawing parallels to Art Dubai and finding that the fair fell short of their expectations.”
Next year Contemporary Istanbul will have another competitor: Art International Istanbul launches in September 2013 under the leadership of Sandy Angus, a cofounder of ArtHK. Turkey’s combination of “cultural substance” and “demographic advantages,” Angus explains, “led us to believe that Istanbul will be the venue for one of the major global art fairs in the medium term.” The selection committee includes representatives from Rampa as well as Gallery Isabelle van den Eynde, Dubai; Galerie Krinzinger, Vienna; and Leila Heller Gallery, New York.
Contemporary Istanbul, like all major art events in Turkey, is largely sponsored by a corporate entity, in this case, Akbank Private Banking. But private patronage is evolving in encouraging ways. In 2011 the collector Ahu Büyükkusoglu Serter added an artist residency program to her Casa Dell’Arte luxury art hotel in Bodrum, on the Aegean coast. Twice a year she hosts a curator and five artists from the region for six weeks, furnishing a production budget, lodging, and meals in exchange for two artworks for the collection. Last year a group of nine collectors founded SAHA, a nonprofit association that aims to promote contemporary Turkish art abroad by establishing long-term partnerships with groups such as New York-based Independent Curators International and institutions like the Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, in Rotterdam. SAHA has already funded projects by Turkish artists for Performa, Documenta, and Manifesta. According to the general secretary, Merve Çaglar, “There is only one criterion for membership: The applicant can’t have any connections to a profit-making art body.”
Many with financial and emotional investments in the Turkish scene fear that even after years of growth, all could be undone by political unrest. The rift between the Istanbul intelligentsia and the conservative Muslim majority is growing. In 2010 an angry mob descended on a trio of galleries during an opening, incensed by the art’s satirical political content and the crowd’s plastic cups of wine. Last year the prime minister was involved in orders to demolish Monument to Humanity, a giant sculpture-in-progress by Mehmet Aksoy on the border between Turkey and Armenia, and the interior minister likened artists to terrorists in a speech. Chosen to curate the Turkish pavilion for next year’s Venice Biennale, Emre Baykal, of the Vehbi Koç Foundation’s contemporary showcase, Arter, confirms that “there are signs that the state wishes to define and get involved in the production of art. But,” he adds, “I think people will push back.”
Turkey’s democracy is entering a critical period, and the outcome will affect the country’s ability to sustain a healthy art ecosystem. More than a few of the art-scene protagonists with whom I spoke expressed their hope for the eventual establishment of a public museum for modern and contemporary Turkish art. A public museum would effectively enshrine aesthetic freedom as an aspect of civic life while exerting a stabilizing influence on the market as an impartial arbiter with no stake in selling. But for that dream to be realized, a governmental policy of benign neglect will not suffice.
This article was published in the November 2012 issue of Art+Auction.