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TEHRAN (Reuters Life!) - A new chapter has opened for Iranian artists enjoying a boom in sales and interest from major international auction houses such as Christie's despite a global economic malaise and sanctions hitting Iran.
Works by Iranian painters have been selling for fairly high prices, not only outside Iran's borders but also inside the Islamic state where many Iranians are facing economic hardship.
Many Iranians are fearful for the future, worrying about higher food and utilities prices. Many middle-class Iranians are squeezed by soaring rents and grocery bills on the one hand and stagnant salaries on the other.
Iran's economy has suffered under international sanctions imposed by the West because of its nuclear activities.
World powers suspect Iran is trying to develop atomic weapons under the cover of its declared civilian nuclear energy program, but Tehran says it needs nuclear power to meet growing domestic demand for electricity.
Talks with Iran on suspending the nuclear program in return for trade and technology have ground to a halt, with the last meeting in Istanbul in January failing to yield results.
Sanctions mainly target vital sectors of the economy such as banking and energy, which analysts say raises the cost of trade by making it more difficult to transfer funds or insure cargo.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's government has also cut subsidies on fuel and food, which critics blame for increasing living costs and pressure on ordinary Iranians.
Nevertheless, there remains an apparently insatiable appetite for Iranian works of art, irrespective of the different styles and mediums and prices. There are over a dozen major galleries for paintings in Tehran.
Working in a modern office, Alireza Sami Azar, an Iranian art analyst, says the change in attitudes toward art has largely contributed to the current market boom for paintings, which he expects to continue growing.
"The recent phenomenon that has contributed to the growing market was the fact that this art is now regarded as a means for investment, and so it's got a cultural and financial aspect rather than an artistic, philanthropic reason behind it."
"This peaking trend dates back to 2006 when major auction houses like Christie's came to the region," he said.
Gallery owners in Iran say international sanctions have had little negative impact on the art market where wealthy Iranians have found it harder to invest abroad due to sanctions and stagnating property prices make real estate less attractive.
"Just a little when it comes to banking affairs and transferring money...Apart from that, there are no major bad things that have hit the market," Sami Azar said.
Christie's, owned by the French billionaire Francois Pinault, has 14 sales rooms around the world, from New York to Hong Kong.
Other major international auction houses, such as rival Sotheby's, have also been boosting their presences in the Gulf to meet demand from wealthy Arab investors and homesick expatriates who are looking to add a bit of "soul" to their shopping lists in a region long seen as a cultural desert.
It has become vogue in affluent Iranian society to have at least one of these paintings, sometimes without having a knowledge of the artistic value of the paintings.
"My five-year-old daughter can paint better than this but as all my friends have such paintings, I had to pay a fortune to buy these two as well," said Negar Bigdeli, a factory owner's wife, pointing at two paintings hanging over her fireplace.
Record oil prices have helped increased spending power in the world's major oil-exporting region, and some of that disposable income is now being channeled into art.
"The young contemporary Iranian artist, Farhad Moshiri, was the first ever Middle Eastern artist whose work hit over a million (dollars) at Christie's," Sami Azar said, adding that Artist Parviz Tanavoli has since sold his sculpture "Persepolis" for a record $2.8 million.
Iranian artists Hossein Zenderoudi and Mohammed Ehsai are also among the top sellers with works going for $1.6 million and $1.2 million respectively.
Owner of Silk Road Gallery in Tehran, Anahita Ghabaian said Iranian art has global appeal.
"Developments in Iran (politically and economically) interest many around the world ... still some think that Iranians are camel-riders ... they are surprised to find out that Iranian art is so progressive," Ghabaian said.
In a workshop in the affluent part of northern Tehran, Tanavoli, the top selling Iranian sculptor, is optimistic about a rosy future of Iranian art now that rich Iranians view it as a source of investment.
"There is a lot of wandering money in this country which in the past was only invested in housing and stock exchange. But this has changed now," Tanavoli said.
In a cozy central Tehran studio, Bahram Dabiri a 61-year old contemporary painter is somewhat cynical about big auction houses such as Christies, despite being satisfied over the market demand for his works.
"They say Iran is a country of wonders. They are right. We are facing economic hardship. But the number of art works I am now selling and their price -- in comparison to four years ago -- have increased immensely," Dabiri said.
Dabiri is critical of evaluation of art works within the framework of auctions such as Christie's.
"The price of art is love. The price of art is culture, history, civilization, and the sentiment of mankind. Let's measure art with these (concepts)not with the dollar."
Iran Darroudi, who champions the work of women artists and has had many exhibitions throughout the world is also happy with the buoyant market, but says Iranians buy art for enjoyment and education not investment.
"One (fact) is that an Iranian buyer never does anything for investment, but only buys for himself, to enjoy it, for the culture of the painting, so that their children's eyes would get used to art."
Editing by Paul Casciato