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DUBAI (Reuters) - Art buyers from across the Middle East crowded Christie's auction room in Dubai, bidding briskly to bag a bargain as prices fall in the global downturn.
A painting sale, marking the start of the region's auction season for Christie's International, fetched $4.7 million last week, within estimates that were sharply lowered this year.
By comparison, Christie's raised $8.65 million from its last auction in October, only half its estimate at the time.
Prices of Middle East art works at auctions in the young Dubai market boomed in the past two years, driven by speculators, experts say. But auction houses have suffered as the financial crisis hit the Gulf Arab trade and tourism hub, reducing the appetite for luxury goods including art.
In November, Bonhams, another global auction house, raised $2.8 million, far below its pre-sale estimate of $12 million.
"Prices have gone down of course because there's a crisis, but what's important is that people are buying, which shows that interest in Middle Eastern art is still firm," said Saleh Barakat, owner of an art gallery in Beirut who sold a number of pieces at the auction last week.
Michael Jeha, managing director of Christie's Middle East, told Reuters it was now "definitely a buyer's market."
The auction saw 150 works by artists from the Middle East, North Africa, and Turkey and a few from the West up for sale, including, for the first time, pieces by Saudi artists.
The six works from Saudi Arabia were diverse in medium and style. One, by doctor and photographer Ahmed Mater Aseeri from his X-Ray series, showed a skeletal head and torso set on sheets resembling pages from a traditional religious text.
The two pieces, Illumination V and VI, were made of X-ray film print on paper, stained with tea and pomegranate juice and embossed with gold leaf, turquoise, amber and carnelian.
The sale also included four paintings by prominent Syrian artist Fateh Moudarres, from the collection of the former German ambassador to Syria, Rudolf Fechter. Among these was The Icons of Moudarres, created in 1962, showing a group of figures, arranged symmetrically with areas picked out in gold leaf.
The work is meant to symbolize the three main religions in Syria -- Islam, Christianity and Judaism.
"There are works collectors couldn't get before because they were priced out of the market by a lot of the speculators. Now the collectors are back in and they see a lot of opportunity to buy great works at great prices," Jeha said.
An Emirati buyer at the auction, who asked to remain anonymous, said prices had come down to "reasonable" levels.
While there was still liquidity in the art market globally, Christie's has seen a "slight" drop in the volume of sales internationally, said Jussi Pylkkanen, president of Christie's Europe, adding that the Dubai sale showed continued appetite among collectors in the wealthy oil-exporting region.
Art has been traditionally seen as a safe investment at times of economic crises, he said, but prices are down.
The Wall and the Script, by Iranian artist Parviz Tanavoli, fetched the highest price of $218,500 at the Christie's auction Wednesday. By comparison, the auction house's top-selling lot last year was a piece by the same artist, sold for $2.8 million.
Editing Erica Billingham