A conversation with Katia Nounou Boueiz; Head of Sotheby's UAE talks about bringing Picasso's masterpiece to Dubai, charity auctions and more
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A conversation with Katia Nounou Boueiz; Head of Sotheby's UAE talks about bringing Picasso's masterpiece to Dubai, charity auctions and more

With her poignant leadership, she has transformed Dubai into a global hub for unveiling remarkable artworks and groundbreaking news, putting the city firmly on Sotheby’s map of cultural significance.

ArtDayME: Ruman Baig wrote in Emirates Woman: In a detailed chat with Emirates Woman, Katia Nounou Boueiz, Head of Sotheby’s UAE talks about her journey so far and how she envisions to shape the future of art in a thriving landscape like Dubai.

With her poignant leadership, she has transformed Dubai into a global hub for unveiling remarkable artworks and groundbreaking news, putting the city firmly on Sotheby’s map of cultural significance.

You’ve been at the helm of Sotheby’s in the UAE since 2017, what inspired you to take on this role and contribute to Dubai’s emergence on the global arts scene?

Looking back, it all came together almost as if by fate. I actually joined Sotheby’s all the way back in 2008, working in the London office but with a core focus on nurturing the new generation of collectors in the Middle East. When I married my husband in 2015, we decided to move to Dubai, and so I had to of course let management know. I certainly didn’t expect that they would turn around and offer me the chance to open Sotheby’s first office and gallery space in the Middle East (as you can imagine, it was an offer I could hardly refuse!).

Shortly after, I found out I was pregnant, and nine months later, I was pregnant once again! Before I knew it, by the time the office had officially launched in 2017, I had two little ones under two, and an entire office to manage and run (my third child in a way!). It was terrifying and exhilarating all at once, and I can’t imagine it any other way.

Eight years later – we are not only still here, but our team of three has expanded to eleven of us permanently on the ground in the UAE – so not only did we manage to survive, but we have also gone beyond our initial scope and feel proud to be part of the Emirates’ thriving ecosystem for the arts.

Your involvement in bringing major artworks to Dubai, like the recent Picasso that sold for $139 million in New York, has been transformative. How do you approach curating and unveiling such significant pieces in the region?

Dubai has long held a reputation for hosting the biggest, the best, the tallest, the most valuable… and so my strategy with which artworks and gems to travel to the doorstep of collector’s here has always partly aligned with that. Put simply, lets being the very best of the best that is on offer at our global auctions, because, why not? Standards and expectations here are high.

With UAE as one of the culture capitals of the Middle East, and with the great appetite we have witnessed, it doesn’t take much convincing for the business to send us these incredible highlights. Whenever something major is about to be announced for auction at Sotheby’s, I jump on a call with the head of department or most relevant specialist, and we talk through bringing it to the UAE as part of its global travelling exhibition (or indeed, more and more, as the very first stop on the tour).

When we know what it is that is coming, we plan a whole host of programming around it – from collaborations with our wonderful neighbours The Arts Club, to educational talks with our specialists and relevant spokespeople. For the most exceptional lots, we also make sure we work closely with Dubai Culture and DIFC, who have been so supportive in the past.

We have been lucky enough to bring the likes of Marie-Antoinette’s pearls, artworks by Botticelli, Rubens, Picasso, Kandinsky, Boetti and Warhol, and important stones from across the rainbow, including the once-in-a-generation Estrela de Fura (a 55.22 carat ruby), the Infinite Blue and Eternal Pink diamonds, and the Enigma (the largest polished black diamond in the world at 555.55 carats).

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The ‘Made in the Emirates’ exhibition showcased local artists. Can you tell us more about the importance of promoting local talent and how it contributes to the cultural fabric of Dubai?

The UAE is home to some amazing artists, designers, architects, jewellers, the list goes on, and we feel very lucky to be part of this ecosystem together. I myself collect works by Emirati artists, including a piece by Mohamed Ahmed Ibrahim that I am particularly fond of.

Though Sotheby’s is very much a heritage company whose history goes back to 280 years, we feel very closely connected to the DNA of our particular location. We believe it is super important to promote this cultural scene and celebrate these creatives – offering them a platform (given our reach is so international) and raising awareness – as much as possible wherever we can. As well as our selling, and non-selling exhibitions, the educational side of things is also key, for example our series of public talks with collectors.

Very excitingly, and something quite new for us, during Dubai Fashion week in February we have teamed up with the Arab Fashion Council and Mrs. Keepa to be the venue for the much-anticipated launch of the French-Egyptian designer’s latest line. We’ll be styling her avant-garde creations with jewellery and handbags that we are offering for private sales, so it’s all very symbiotic.

We always have an exhibition during Art Dubai week too. I can’t say too much, as the details are still under wraps, but we are planning a sort of love letter to Beirut, and Lebanon more generally, as a melting pot for the arts – having been the home of, but also inspired, so many of the major artists from our region.

I would love to shout out a few other homegrown talents as well: Engage101, who are a platform that study, support and exhibit young emerging Gulf artists, and Bayt AlMamzar, a great community space for artists.

Beyond traditional auctions, you’ve organized charitable collaborations, including a post-explosion charity auction for Beirut. How do you see the role of the arts in contributing to charitable causes, especially during challenging times like the ones we are in?

Charity auctions have always been important to Sotheby’s, as part of our ongoing dedication to giving back and our commitment to making our industries more accessible, sustainable and collaborative. Globally just this past year, we played a role in raising over $200 million for various non-profit organizations, with more than $58 million directed towards museums. From providing one of our fabulous auctioneers (whose skills on the rostrum are fully unleashed when raising bids for charity), to more full blown initiatives where we partner with a charity to put together an auction of donated lots, we hope that we can continue to give back where we can.

Your commitment to engaging the local arts community is evident, with talks, workshops, and involvement of children. Why is it essential for you to foster this community engagement, and how do you envision its impact on the future of the arts in Dubai?

Education and investment in education is key for the continued evolution of the art scene of any nation, and we believe it is critical to focus our attention on providing the unique insights and content that come from our centuries of expertise. Whether our audience is a child, a seasoned art collector or a young, first-time buyer, our number one priority is to educate (and also to learn!).

When we brought the Picasso portrait to Dubai last year it felt like a landmark moment, just watching every person who walked through the door was so rewarding: it really shows you that the thirst is there. From men in their work suits coming in on their lunch break, to gaggles of young children, the awe and wonder was palpable. Bringing my own children to see it was actually one of those lovely career moments for me – I had been talking about it to them for days over the dinner table (they always know first what is coming!), and so it was very fun for them to see it in person. They went back home that evening and did their own little drawings of the painting, which were pretty good!

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How does your multicultural background influence your approach to curating and connecting with artists from various parts of the world?

Much in the same way as Dubai itself, I feel like I am a melting pot of everything from the West and the Middle East. I am half Iraqi, half Iranian, married to a Lebanese man, born and raised in London but French-educated, it is difficult to put a label on it! I have such a strong, natural affinity to the Middle East, and am so proud to be working and living here – and at the same time, I am so keen to showcase international artists, and expose clients to art from all over the world.

Given your success in bringing renowned works to Dubai, what is on your wish list for future art collections or exhibitions in the region?

I have quite a few ideas that we are working on, but one that I come back to a lot is the concept of a ‘Prints’ online sale here, as prints are just such a great entry point for young collectors, and are a great way to decorate your home (with pieces by some of the best known and best loved artists).

A personal favourite of mine is Latin art, as well as African American art, and this is something that hasn’t really been done before – its always nice to add new flavours to the UAE. Last year we had a talk about the late Fernando Botero, with his eldest son, and it really inspired us to think about these themes and explore further, as there was such a huge appetite. Watch this space!

Are there specific artists or genres you hope to introduce to the local art scene of Dubai?

Over the years, we have had a sort of roll call of the great artists who are international household names, from Old Masters to pioneering Modernists, and so I love the element of surprise of what might emerge next from a great collection, ready to be shown to the world once again. I am keeping my fingers crossed for a Monet and a Magritte. Beyond that on my wishlist are Henry Taylor, Amy Sherald, Lynette, Kehinde Wiley, Kerry James Marshall, Basquiat and Rashid Johnson.