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Khaled Samawi's Life Is All About Art

Khaled Samawi is in a good mood. “my house is full of art. The most expensive piece I have is worth around $200k. But I have art everywhere in my house. I never get bored of it. Can you imagine a world without art? That would be terrible. I just can’t imagine life without art,” he says. So far, life with art has been pretty good for Samawi. His Ayyam Gallery is considered the benchmark for Arabic art. With galleries in Damascus, Beirut, Cairo and Dubai, the gallery is pushing the envelope in the promotion of top Arab art. Ayyam Auctions is also the first regional auction house with auctions in Dubai and Beirut. Ayyam Publishing has published more than 50 art books in the last five years. The recently inaugurated Ayyam Art Centre in Dubai is the first private museum in the Gulf dedicated to the exhibition of Arab art. “We have two big auctions coming up in October and they will be busy, maybe $1m worth of art will be sold at each,” he says. This is clearly a good time to be in the art business. Experts suggest that the market has really grown in the Middle East during the past five years, with prices rocketing close to 500 percent. Everyone with a fair bit of spare cash appears to be joining the bandwagon, with the likes of Ayyam Gallery leading the way in displaying Middle Eastern art. Never mind gold and silver. Art, says Samawi, is where the real action is going to be. “It’s not too late because it was ridiculously underpriced before. And when compared it globally it is still under-priced. When you invest in anything you need to be clever. But art is not a number on your stock portfolio, you enjoy it every day and you also make a good investment. You can buy from $500 to $50m. In the Middle East 99 percent of the art is trading between $5k to $100k. There are some in the millions,” he says. “If you are buying art today to sell it in five years, you shouldn't be buying it. It’s almost like buying the home you are living in. If you lived and enjoyed your home for 20 years and you made a profit… its same as art, you enjoy it and live with it. In 30 years you sell it, because you outgrew it. And you make a fair bit of money as well.” Samawi is making a name for himself through his auctions — effectively the first auctions by Arabs for Arabs. Last year his auction houses saw close to $5m in sales, compared to just $500k when they were launched two years ago. Add to that around $10m in revenues, and the art business is clearly good business. His galleries display art from 25 of the region’s most established and newest artists — including Mustafa Ali and Safwan Dahoul. In May this year the company’s eighth sale, held in Dubai, netted a cool $250,000 from 65 lots. By July, the sale in Beirut saw $750,000 of sales from just 60 lots. “The key is finding good art. There are a lot of great Arab artists that have been discovered in last five years and those that have not been discovered. You just keep your eyes and ears open and you find good art,” he says. So how much money can you expect to make? “The industry is very difficult even for professionals to make money. We find artists that we believe in, we like to represent young artists with a bright future. We manage their careers, they manage the art. We are collectors and we take percentage of the sales.” Luckily for Samawi, he doesn't have to worry too much about how much he makes. The ex-banker has always had an innate love of art and, in his previous life as a banker, each year he would go skiing in the Alps and browse the latest collections that the top galleries hoped him and his colleagues would spend their “fat bonuses” on. In 2001, he sold his banking business but was brought out of semi-retirement when he realized there was a way to combine his business acumen with his love of art. “I played golf for five years, but then got into this both as a hobby and a business,” he says. Opening his first gallery in Damascus in 2006, he quickly expanded to Dubai in 2008 and to Beirut in 2009. London, Hong Kong, Istanbul and Cairo are also on his radar. He clocks up attendance at around ten art fairs a year, and despite no formal training, is renowned in the industry for his ability to spot great art. “I’ve always invested my bonus in art. I just loved it. I didn't study it, I am not an art scholar but I have eyes that have been well trained. At the end, if I like something and I can afford it, I will usually buy it — and I don’t worry about the price in five years,” he says. Samawi says his own house is full of art, with the most expensive piece coming in at around $250,000. “I couldn't imagine life without art, I just couldn't,” he says. Given the rate of his success and his growing reputation, it is likely the industry cannot imagine life without him.

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