Tehran art auction lures spenders amid hard times
In this picture taken on Monday, July 1, 2013, two Iranian women look at paintings in an art gallery, in Tehran, Iran. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)
TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Some arrived in Porsches or BMWs, which were whisked away by valet parking attendants. The hotel lobby was awash with the celebrated and powerful including A-list actors, well-known artists and captains of commerce.
For one glimmering moment late last month, the Iranian capital was the talk of the world's art market after 80 works sold for $2 million, astonishing a country whose economy is battered by Western sanctions but still has pockets of wealth looking for investment havens for their money.
This is the other side to Tehran — hidden by walls surrounding elite enclaves or in high-rise towers with doormen — that has more in common with well-heeled spots in Manhattan or London.
Many in the gilded set of Tehran come from old merchant families. Others made it big in newer ventures: the export trade with the Gulf or the city's still-hot real estate market, where prime residential property prices in the overcrowded capital can reach Tokyo-level rates of $10,000 per square meter, or $929 per square foot.
Signs of wealth still appear in Tehran even as sanctions bite deeper over the country's nuclear program.
Car dealers get orders — even at inflated price tags because of import complications — for a $300,000 Mercedes Benz or BMWs at $200,000 each. Ice cream flaked with edible gold dust was a signature dish at the rotating restaurant atop Tehran's 435-meter (1,427-foot) Milad Tower. Officials chagrined by the extravagance banned the dessert in 2011, as tightening sanctions have led to shortages of medicine and protests over the soaring price of chicken.
In this Thursday, July 11, 2013 photo, Iranian art collector Ali Bakhtiari speaks about an artwork at his house, in Tehran, Iran. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)
Iran's stumbling economy has become such a political issue that it dominated debates before June's presidential election. The winner, Hasan Rouhani, has pledged to try to reverse painful inflation now running at about 30 percent and work to ease sanctions.
The art auction — Tehran's second such event in the past year — offered a rare window into the investment strategies of the city's rich, whose route to acquire assets overseas has been complicated by sanctions that bumped Iran from main international banking networks. Now some of Iran's wealth increasingly appears drawn to the rising profile and prices of Iranian art in galleries from Dubai to Los Angeles. In April, the painting "The Secret Garden" by Iranian artist Farhad Moshiri brought the highest price at a Christie's auction in Dubai at $987,750.