In past 10 years, Turkish economy has stabilized, and people have taken interest in art
Today, Turkish works are selling for tens and even hundreds of thousands of dollars
But are people buying the art for its beauty or because they see it as a good investment?
The auctioneer rattled off prices and artists’ names with breathtaking speed, punctuating every sale with the announcement “Saa … saa … saa – TIM!” meaning sold in English.
The bidding was fast and sometimes competitive at the Nisantasi Auction House, in one of Istanbul’s most posh neighborhoods. Within an hour, auctioneer Ali Ulukaya sold off more than $300,000 worth of paintings, almost all of them by living Turkish artists.
After being virtually ignored for decades, both at home and abroad, Turkish modern art has rapidly developed into a booming market.
“These numbers have gotten quite astronomical,” said Kerimcan Guleryuz, owner of the recently opened Empire Project art gallery.
Guleryuz is the son of Mehmet Guleryuz, one of Turkey’s most famous living painters.
“Unfortunately, until five or 10 years ago … the number of artists I could count who were making a living just off of their work was three to five, maybe,” Kerimcan Guleryuz said. “Now you can look at a work from Taner Ceylan being put in the Sotheby’s auction and reaching more than 280,000 pounds sterling ($444,000).”
Just 10 years ago, artist Kezban Arca Batibeki said, she had a hard time explaining her art to Turks. Her loft studio in a rapidly gentrifying Istanbul neighborhood was decorated with large tableaus, one of them featuring a cartoonish, scantily clad woman lying bound, gagged and frightened in the corner of a ruined house.
“Everybody asked … ‘Is it a painting? Is it an illustration or what?’ I was always trying to explain what I was doing,” she said.
Now, Batibeki’s pop-art confections sell for tens of thousands of dollars, mostly to Turkish buyers.
“Turkish people like trends,” she said with a smile. “When it became a trendy movement, they began buying contemporary works.”
In 2009, Sotheby’s held its first auction of Turkish modern art in London. The auction grossed more than $2 million in sales. The next year, those numbers nearly doubled.
Traditionally, wealthy industrialist families have been the biggest art patrons in Turkey. The privately funded Sakip Sabanci Museum opened in Istanbul in 2002. Two years later, the Eczacibasi family launched the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art.
Independent collectors, however, have started making inroads. Downtown Istanbul has seen dozens of new art galleries in just the past few years.
“It’s like mushrooms after rain,” said William Greenwood, a curator at the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar.
Industry insiders say the booming Turkish art market has paralleled the rapid growth in Turkey’s once crisis-prone economy. Since a financial meltdown brought Turkey’s banking sector to its knees in 2001, the economy has stabilized and more than doubled in size the past 10 years.
“The influence of the Turkish economy’s growth has unquestionably been one of the most important catalysts to this growth in the sales of artwork,” gallery owner Guleryuz said. “They go hand in hand. Unless you have economic stability, unless you have growth, you will not have sales in art. It’s just not possible.”
But Turkey’s transformation is not only economical; it is also cultural. Since its launch in 1987, the Istanbul Biennal Contemporary Art exhibition has introduced many once-skeptical Turks to contemporary art.
“The impact of the Biennal on the Turkish art scene has been immense,” said Susan Platt, art critic and author of “Art and Politics Now.” “The artists are now exposed to many, many different strategies and media and also artists from all over the world.”
Batibeki said her work is now being displayed in a New York gallery after its owner saw her pieces on display in Istanbul’s Biennal. But she conceded that newfound Turkish appreciation of modern art is not what has been driving sales.
“Very few of them buy because they love the piece,” she said. “Most of them are buying because you’re famous.”
Guleryuz notices this, too.
“We’re starting to lose track of why it is that we are looking at the art,” he said. “Are we looking at it because it’s worth $150,000 or because it describes something about the human condition?”
At the Nisantasi Auction House, Ulukaya said the majority of his buyers were looking for something valuable to invest in.
“We see it as a lucrative business,” said Salime Adali, who came to watch the auction. Adali said that in addition to his iron business, he recently opened an art gallery with his wife in Istanbul.
“We see this as a good investment for our retirement and something to leave our daughter,” he said.
And there is one rule to collecting art that still appears to dominate this newfound market.
After a series of landscapes of the Turkish countryside sold for 1,000 lira ($568) a piece, one buyer in the back of the crowded room quipped to his neighbor, “Those paintings will only become valuable after the artist dies.”
CNN’s Joe Duran contributed to this report.