DUBAI (Reuters) - Auction house Christie's will put one of the world's largest pearls on the block at its Dubai spring jewelry sale on April 20 in a nostalgic reminder of the Emirate's pearl diving past.
The auction house is showcasing an array of pearls, diamonds, gems and gold jewelry ahead of the sale. Pearls are especially unique to Dubai, as pearl hunting was a major source of income a century ago in the port city.
Christie's -- who have been holding regular auctions in the Middle East since 2006 -- saw regional sales reach $51 million last year, up from recession lows of $18-20 million in 2009. Globally, the art and jewelry-selling powerhouse posted record sales of $5 billion in 2010.
"2009 was a very difficult year for us. Volumes were down and we had price softening," said Michael Jeha, managing director of the Middle East. "But, last year saw a real maturity in strength and return to growth. We had a general recovery."
One of the most interesting pieces on sale this year is a drop-shaped pearl in a silver and grey shade at almost 60 carats. One of the largest natural saltwater pearls recorded to date, it is mounted as a pendant on a diamond-studded chain necklace. Christie's has estimated it at up to $250,000.
"This part of the world likes things that are unique and rare," said David Warren, head of Christie's Middle East jewelry department.
"If you look out on the street, you'll see that quite a number of cars are customized by the manufacturers as special "one-offs.' Similarly, the collectors want something they think is unique."
Close to one hundred jewelry lots - estimated at a total $5-$6.5 million - will be available at the auction next month. Items range from an elephant-shaped gem ring worth $4,000-$6,000 to a diamond flower necklace which converts into a tiara with matching earrings worth $450,000-$550,000.
This sale will be much smaller than the previous one, estimated at approximately $13.5 million, since last year's sale included watches and a private collection. Warren added that it had been hard finding good jewelry to sell.
To date, Christie's has sold over $200 million worth of art and jewelry since the start of its twice-annual inaugural auction in the Gulf city in 2006.
Dubai is its only Middle East office. While there are no exact plans for more offices in the region, Jeha said they are looking to expand. His team also frequently travels throughout the region to meet with clients or stage events.
Alongside the jewelry auction is the contemporary and modern picture auction on April 19. Contemporary Middle Eastern art has gained interest in Dubai over the years, including the fifth annual Art Dubai earlier this month.
While unrest sweeping through the Arab world could be a worry for some, Jeha is confident that the strong sales from last year will continue in 2011.
"Recent sales show that we are performing extremely strong and picking up from where we left off last year," he said. "But of course, things in the Middle East could change very rapidly."
The clients at local auctions have diversified in the last few years, said Jeha. Approximately 70 percent of the clients at the last auction were from the Middle East while 30 percent came from cities such as New York, London and Hong Kong.
"It shows clearly that the market is continuing to internationalize. The interest is deepening and that's important for long-term sustainability" he said. "We want to continue to expand participation in the market."
While the backgrounds of the clients differ, Jeha added that preferences in taste have become similar.
"The Middle East clients are very international," he said. "They travel constantly, and their taste, accordingly, has become far more inline with that globally," he said. "The clients in the Middle East are global buyers."
Editing by Paul Casciato