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The rise of Turkish contemporary art

As the financial crisis further limits their options, buyers are looking to one long-neglected — and surprisingly current — market.

ISTANBUL, Turkey — Home to an acclaimed biennial and several world-class galleries, Turkey has long nurtured a strong contemporary art scene, influenced as much by modern Turkish politics and society as by the country's Ottoman past. Its diverse range of artists reflects the sometimes contradictory positions of Turkey itself, cast as the gateway to both Europe and Asia.

In today’s economic climate, as many an artist sweats over the contracting international art market, Turkey has emerged as a surprising success story.

Since the year's end, buyers have been circumspect, some galleries have closed and contemporary art values have dropped by a third. Expectations for the upcoming spring auctions are far less ambitious than previous years, with Sotheby's expecting to bring in between $179 million and $256 million, down from $742 million last spring.

But for emerging markets such as Turkey, it seems that shrinking pocketbooks are drawing Western buyers towards previously neglected art communities.

This past March, Sotheby’s in London held its first major auction dedicated to Turkish contemporary art. The auction was part of a Sotheby's strategy to establish a foothold in frontier markets, following the first Arab and Iranian modern and contemporary sales in 2007.

Works fetched a wide range of prices: Among the least expensive items was an untitled painting by Erdogan Zumrutoglu, which sold for $5,685; “Spiritual,” by Taner Ceylan, fetched $107,415; while at the upper end, an untitled oil on canvas by Orhon fetched 193,250 pounds, or $292,870. A total of 50 pieces was sold for 1,349,500 pounds, or a little more than $2 million. Despite increased foreign interest, most of the buyers were Turkish collectors. 

GlobalPost recently sat down with Isabella Içöz, an adviser to Sotheby’s on Turkish contemporary art:

What first drew you to Turkish contemporary art?

Actually, it was originally my circumstances that made me have to become interested in Turkish contemporary art. My husband is Turkish so I moved here two years ago. Before that I’d been working in art for about seven years, primarily at Christie’s in London. When I knew I was moving to Istanbul, however, I began to inform myself about Turkish contemporary art internationally and found that there was very little information available and very little Turkish art in international collections. That interested me, especially because I think the art here is so good and I really didn’t understand why there wasn’t much dialogue externally.

Then, especially in the last two years, you really see a huge growth in Turkish contemporary art. You have numerous museums that have been built, independent art spaces, a lot of galleries have started to appear and now you have some major Turkish artists in important international collections. You have someone like Hale Tenger in the Centre Pompidou, Selma Gurbuz in the Tate Modern. You also have artists like Kutlug Ataman being short-listed for the Turner Prize.

What are the defining characteristics of the contemporary art scene in Turkey?