Sotheby’s MENA: Unveiling the Middle East’s Rise as a Collectors’ Paradise

Founded in 1744, Sotheby’s opened its first office in the Middle East not long ago in 2017. The region known for its royalty, opulence and for attracting UHNW expats from around the world is unravelling as an important market of luxury collectors and consignees. The record breaking 55.22 carat Ruby – Estrela-de-Fura, too, was bought by a private collector from the Middle East for $34.8 million. SOPHIE STEVENS, Director and Jewellery Specialist at Sotheby’s MENA talks about the journey of the growth of the British auction house in the Middle East, in an interview with Shilpa Dhamija.

When and why did Sotheby’s set up its jewellery division branch in Dubai ?

Sotheby’s Dubai opened its doors in 2017 and straightaway began exhibiting highlights from our upcoming international auctions across both the Global Fine Arts and Luxury divisions. In jewellery specifically, in the first year we had the Apollo and Artemis diamonds.

The Apollo Blue being a Fancy Vivid Blue diamond weighing 14.54 carats and the Artemis Pink being a Fancy Intense Pink diamond weighing 16.00 carats. They were both pear-shaped and set in a pair of earrings that went on to sell for $57 million in Geneva. That same year, Sotheby’s Dubai also exhibited the Chow Tai Fook Pink Star – a 59.60-carat Fancy Vivid Pink diamond. It later sold for $71.2million, making it the most expensive diamond or jewel ever sold at auction to this day.

Today, we still regularly hold exhibitions of such international highlights – most recently we showcased The Eternal Pink diamond and the Estrela de FURA ruby which each sold for $34.8million in New York this month.

We also offer a regular educational calendar, for example gemstone masterclasses, historical lectures and book signings, as well as private selling exhibitions for clients who prefer to purchase immediately.

What makes the Middle East a promising market for Sotheby’s?

For the auction houses, the Middle East has long held an alluring market appeal. There is a very rich collecting history throughout the region across various categories and a strong thirst for further education and cultural initiatives.

For jewellery and luxury more widely, the Middle East is a significant emerging market. In the past six months alone, we have sent more than $350 million of Luxury property (collectibles) to the Middle East for exhibition and sale. This is largely due to the ever-growing number of Middle East participants in our global luxury sales. Over the past five years (2018 to 2022), we’ve seen the number of participants at our auctions from the Middle East more than double (125%). In that same period, first time buyers have almost quadrupled (273% increase).

Which is the most notable or important gem/jewellery sale that Sotheby’s has overseen in the Middle East, in the recent past ?

Very excitingly, it happened only this month! The Estrela de FURA: 55.22 is the world’s largest gem-quality ruby and sold for $34.8 million, making it the most expensive ruby or coloured gemstone ever sold at auction. It was sold to a private collector based in the Middle East.

While China continues to dominate the luxury market in Asia, where do you think the Middle East stands in terms of interest in high jewellery or jewellery/gem collectibles?

In 2022, Sotheby’s luxury sales (including jewellery) more than doubled in value reaching $2.3 billion, a record high for any auction house.

In the Middle East we have seen a 57% increase in the number of buyers in our luxury sales as compared to 2021, with the total spent at Sotheby’s increasing by 86%,.

When we compare this to Asia, there we saw a 73% increase in the number of buyers, with total spend increasing by 60%, an evidence of the significant spending power of the Middle East in relation to other key markets such as Asia.

Also, when looking at the jewellery market specifically in the Middle East, there are two key opportunities. One is the enormous collecting and purchasing potential as seen in our recent auction figures. The other is the consignment opportunities. The region has a long history of collecting. As with many areas of the world, sometimes pieces are inherited by their current owners but are no longer fashionable or they would rather sell and use the funds for something else. We also have a growing number of clients consigning their jewels to Sotheby’s to sell in our international auctions.

How would you describe and categorise the preferences of Middle Eastern gem or jewellery collectors ?

I would say there is a regional preference for size. For example, the larger the diamond the better. Whereas in Asia, the colour, purity and higher clarity take precedence over carat weight.

In the Middle East, there is also a familiarity and loyalty to the major brands, be it Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels, Bulgari, etc. Colour can also be important. Not so much in terms of a single important coloured gem, but more in terms of a standout design. There is also an enduring demand for full sets of necklaces, earrings, bracelets and rings.

However, sales mostly still come down to individual taste and the lovely thing about the Middle East is that ladies and men really wear jewellery. You can see some truly wonderful pieces being worn here every day.

How does Sotheby’s target the younger generation of collectors in the Middle East for its jewellery business?

This is a very important market for Sotheby’s. Most recently in March 2023, Sotheby’s launched its first ever Modern & Contemporary Jewellery Series in Dubai, which showcases the latest creations from some of the most exciting emerging designers in the world.

Whilst this is a global initiative, Dubai was chosen as the launch location due to its renowned forward-looking reputation for and hunger for the new.

We started with Nadine Ghosn and are currently exhibiting designs by Ralph Masri, both of which have roots in the Middle East.

How would you describe the demography of your clients in the Middle East?

Buyers in the Middle East tend to mirror our Asian buyers in age by being, in the majority, 40 years or younger. They are all professionals, local in Dubai but also from across the region and include expatriates from around the world.

How does Sotheby’s plan to grow its jewellery business in the Middle East in the near future?

I have been with Sotheby’s since we opened the Dubai office in 2017 and I can see how much busier we are now across jewellery and all our categories… How much our client base has grown. Through an ongoing programme of exhibitions, educational events, valuations and travelling throughout the region we are building relationships with potential collectors and consignors. Clients trust us to offer only the very best pieces and services.

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