What Makes People Buy Art?

For centuries the collecting of fine art in Europe and select Arab countries was dependent on the support of figures of authority: the church, royalty and wealthy families. This was not the case in Syria, however. Syrians were – and are – accustomed to collecting carpets, opaline vases, jewellery, silverware and bone China. In old Damascene and Aleppine homes – many of which still exist – vitrines built into the walls of the main salon[1]served to display part of the family’s collection of antiques and precious objects. Indeed, until the 1950s, buying fine art in Syria – as opposed to antiques and carpets – was considered a ‘new’ phenomenon. One could question how artworks could be neglected in a country where sculptures, drawings and paintings from the fourth millennium BC are embedded in its culture. Surely, the act of buying art in Syria evolved throughout history, so what exactly changed? What are the reasons for the flourishing of the commercial art market in the mid 1980s, and the boom that followed in 2006? What made – and still makes – people buy art? 

This paper is an attempt to understand the art market in Syria, from the end of the 19th century up to the beginning of the Syrian revolution in 2011. My research has led me to believe that there are two main issues which have impacted the stalling of the collecting of fine art in Syria. First, the misinterpretation of the Islamic religion in a country with a majority Muslim population and second, a lack of arts infrastructure resulting in not enough exposure to modern art. I shall examine the social, political and economic factors that impacted the evolution and progression – and sometime faltering – of buying fine art in each decade. 


The Role of Religion


It has been widely believed that visual art and music are forbidden in Islam. According to the traveller Abdel Rahman Bik Sami[2], who visited Syria and Lebanon in 1890, paintings and drawings were absent in the Muslim houses of Damascus. Instead, these houses were decorated with mirrors and calligraphy, while Christian homes featured drawings and paintings. However, in his book, Islam and the Visual Arts, Dr. Mohamad Ammara[3] explains that Islam did not in fact originally prohibit art and music, but that the ban came gradually as a political and social consequence of the Fall of Baghdad in 1258 AD. In his essay The Visual Arts in Syria, from Its Roots to Contemporary Art, artist Elias Zayat writes that in Syria and the wider Middle East, during the time of the Umayyad Dynasty (661–750 AD) figurative artworks were indeed permitted.[4] One could find them in palaces, castles and bathhouses: “Painting and sculpture depicting human figures was allowed on the walls of buildings, such as in hunting scenes or in images of people delighting in music in the company of singers.”[5] As such, in a society where the majority of the population comprised Muslims, this particular misinterpretation in regard to the prohibition of figurative work played a vital role in the negligence of visual art and subsequent collecting of artworks in Damascus. 

Aleppo, in contrast, had a population historically more accustomed to art – right up until the beginning of the 20th Century. Seeing artworks in homes was far from rare and was due primarily to two factors. The first was the position of Aleppo in the Ottoman Empire during the 16th and 17th centuries as a main centre for trade between Europe and the Middle East, which saw it host “Venetian, British, Dutch, and French consulates and trading offices.”[6] The second was the presence of a large Christian population – in comparison to other cities in Syria. In 1900, the Christian population in Aleppo was 26%. By 1944, following the Armenian migration to Aleppo following the Turkish massacre after the First World War, it had risen to 37%. This openness to European cultures, and the subsequent diversity of its population, made art more acceptable within the city. For example, in 1938 the prizes of a charitable lottery in Aleppo were artworks by the artists Alfraid Bakhash and his father Nadim.[7]

In the 19th century, the European influence had reached Syria via Turkey, where portraits of the Sultan had become à la mode. Thus the Sultans and bourgeois of Syria also began to commission self-portraits – these may well have been some of the first artworks purchased by ‘collectors’ in the sense that we are familiar with today, with some of the oldest examples dating back to beginning of the 20th century. One such example is a portrait of Tarek Mou’ayad AlAzem dated 1905, who was a well-known figure in Damascene society. Writes Zayat: “Personal portraits had been well-liked by the walis and the royals of the Levant since the 18th century and became a status symbol amongst the bourgeois in the 19th century. These were classic and realistic paintings by Italian and Turkish artists and were soon mastered by our people.”[8]

In spite of this, when European cultural influences reached Syria during the mid-19th century, they clashed with Damascene society’s traditions and beliefs, further highlighting to what extent the Syrian people were unaccepting of changes in relation to the new wave of art and emerging artists. One of the best known examples is the now famous theatre-burning incident involving Abu Khalil Al Kabbani,[9] which art historian Charbel Dagher cites as having had an immensely negative impact on artistic development at the time.[10]


Drawing is a Kind of Poetry


By the end of the 19th century, a new intellectual class had risen in the Arab world, as epitomised by the scholar and mufti of Egypt Mohammad Abduh, who, in 1894 legitimised visual art when he declared “drawing [painting] is a kind of poetry, seen but not heard. Poetry is also a kind of drawing, heard but not portrayed.”[11]In Syria in 1906, the intellectual Mohamad Kurd Ali, greatly influenced by Mohammad Abduh’s opinion, began to normalise the notion of being an artist, and the creations that came with the role.[12]

Despite this ‘legitimisation’ of fine art, the first generation of artists in Syria were under a lot of pressure. One anecdote, relayed by researcher Suad Jarrous in her yet to be published book, describes how artist Tawfik Tarek (1875–1940) was once drawing in the old street of Damascus, when a passer-by commented: “this is the unbeliever [in God]”. [13]

Another example is a letter received in 1933 by the father of artist Mohamad Jalal: 

“To the respected judge Mouhamad Adib Jala, we have been informed that your son, Mahmoud Afandi, has been paining humans. This is an act of blasphemy and necessitates an eternal punishment because the Hadith says that those who draw will face the biggest punishment. And as your supreme position dictates that you must always be among the pious and believers, we urge you to ask him to stop committing such acts, otherwise we are compelled to expose his sin in (our) platforms [mosques].” [14]


Art Infrastructure 


By the 1930s, art exhibitions were taking place in Damascus. However, for much of the first half of the 20th century, selling artwork during an exhibition remained a rare happening. Such was the case in Nassir Chaura’s 1937 exhibition at The Officer Club. In total, just two works were sold – one to a collector in Beirut[15] – and this was considered a grand success.[16] Another example is the exhibition of artist Rashad Kseibati in 1946 (also at The Officer Club). Kseibati exhibited 30 works, out of which one was sold to the Minister of Defence and two to The Officer Club itself. As such, the exhibition did not even cover the expenses of framing. Indeed, during that time, many artists ceased holding solo exhibitions, “out of fear of [financial] loss”.[17]

This leads me back to the second factor in the lack of the appreciation of modern art in Syria: the lack of an art infrastructure. In pointing out the impact of just such an ‘infrastructure’ – or formation ­– on social aesthetics, sociologist Pierre Bourdieu affirms that people understand culture based on cultural capital, which is “a set of relations and knowledge accumulated in operating in a particular field.”[18] Hence, the understanding – and legitimisation – of art comes from within the supporting structures of an art scene, such as museums, institutions, curators, publications, art critics and so on. At the time, even the government did not support art.

Indeed, it was the art critic Dr. Salman Kataya who pointed out that “the ignorance of the government” stalled the evolution of the art scene. In an article published in 1959, Kataya pointed out that:

“Artist were faced with deaf ears every time they tried to ask for their rights. Each time officials heard such claims, they disregarded artists and charged them with negligence, saying over and over that the country is in need of engineers and specialists in agriculture and industry, and that art is a trivial thing and there is no urgent need for it at this time.”[19]

In 1956 the association of Syrian Artists for Painting and Sculpture[20] suggested a project through which state institutions could acquire artworks at affordable prices. “It was necessary”, the Association advocated, “for the state to preserve such artworks in order to establish a valuable collection in the creative and historical sense that could be a cornerstone for a future museum for Modern art.”[21] Taking the urgency of this advice into consideration, the Ministry of Culture, Ministry of Education, Department of Archaeology and Museums and the Tobacco Regulation Authority each bought works from the Spring Exhibition of 1958, paying higher-then-usual-prices and acquiring, in total, 58 paintings and two sculptures between them.[22]


The United Arab Republic: The First Step


The unification of Syria with Egypt (1958–1961) as the United Arab Republic had a positive impact on the development of the art movement in Syria through exhibitions, international seminars, publications and arts education. [23]

By 1960, Syria was undergoing political unrest and economic transformation, yet, in contrast, its cultural life was prospering, with a new class of intellectuals, poets, writers and artists. It was in this environment and during that same year that the Faculty of Fine Art was established and the Modern Art Gallery opened in Damascus. According to the art critic Dr. Abdel Aziz Alloun, the gallery had a marked impact on widening interest in art within Damascene society, predominantly through regular exhibitions and panel discussions.[24]Still, for the first half of the 1960s, art sales in Damascus were mostly limited to an artist’s close circle, but Modern Art Gallery succeeded in opening up the concept of buying art to the general public.[25] Just two years after its opening, the price of artworks had risen many times to what it had been at the end of the 1950s,[26]but prices were still affordable for the middle-class people. An example was Tereise Jabour, who happened to work in the same street as Modern Art Gallery. Jabour would always visit the exhibitions at the gallery and save her salary to buy works she fell in love with.[27] She even went as far as taking a loan to buy one of Kayyali’s artworks. This illustrates the impact of being exposed to art. 

While Modern Art Gallery operated in Damascus, it was Aleppo at this time that was home to more collectors. In fact, one of the Modern Art Gallery’s most impactful exhibitions in Damascus was that of the collection of Aleppo’s Dr. Salman Kataya in 1962, which comprised 47 artworks by Syrian artists. The Kataya family, led by five intellectual siblings, was one of the first families to collect art in the 1950s and 60s. Nahla Kataya recalls the house of her grandparents in the early 1960s: “It was a place for artists and intellectuals to meet; the walls were full of artworks, not one empty spot.”[28] Dr. Salman encouraged his 17-year old niece Nahla to acquire her first two paintings upon visiting Louay Kayali’s atelier. (fig. 1(. Another example from Aleppo is Remond Kneidar who, in the 1960s emigrated to Montreal, taking with him a valuable collection of Syrian art – one which he continued to build until the early 1990s.

What Makes People Buy Art? - Features - Atassi Foundation

Louay Kayyali (1934-1978). Untitled (Maaloula), 1974, mixed media on masonie, 75 x 94.5 cm. Image courtesy of Barjeel Art Foundation, Sharjah.

However, in 1965, and under Baath Party rule, the nationalisation of factories, private corporations, agricultural lands and small businesses was heavily incentivised. As most of the latter were family owned, the bourgeois class and the educated middle class – the backbone of Syrian society and its economy – were temporarily crushed.[1] I believe that this had a drastic impact on Syria’s already fragile art market.


Acquiring by Coincidence


In 1970, Hafez Al Assad led a military coup and became president of Syria.[2] In 1973, Syria and Egypt launched a war against Israel. Immediately after it ended, in 1974, Syria began to receive enormous financial and material aid from the Arab Gulf states, UN special programmes, the World Bank, as well as from Germany, France and the US.[3] This led to an economic boom and a new class of millionaires working hand in hand with the government emerged: a class of corrupt officers and ministers who had no interest in anything related to art and culture.[4]

Against this socio-political change of the 1970s, while the general population was still not an art-buying public, with some exceptions for individuals who already are exposed to art and exhibition, hence the importance of the art infrastructure. One such example was Ibtissam Akkad Elansari, who, her daughter, Lana recalls, would, on visits home to Syria in the 1970s and 80s always seek out artists. 

“She had a keen curiosity and interest in their creative world. She would look forward to acquiring paintings that she would fall in love with at each opportunity, although, by contrast, my grandmother (born in the early 1900s) would express anxiety and frustration at my mother’s acquisition of paintings in terms of why not buy gold jewellery instead of wasting your money on paintings: ‘My dear daughter, is it not better for you to buy gold? What would buying paintings benefit you?’ My mother, however, was an artist at heart and a collector of art. Over the years she would go on to compile a truly diverse collection of artwork from Syrian artists, overcoming the common perceptions of that time, including those closest to her.”[5]

While select individuals were buying and collecting art, for the most part, buying and selling artworks was still rare. Artist Ziad Dalloul affirmed that selling artworks during the 1970s was “near non-existent”.[6] The only buyer was the government during the Spring and Autumn Exhibitions,[7] other than that, “acquiring by coincidence.”[8]

This environment pushed artists in the 1960s and 70s to take other jobs in order to make ends meet, mostly as professors at the University of Fine Art or art teachers in schools. 


The Bourgeois and Art


By the late 1970s, Syria was also experiencing political unrest due to the Muslim Brotherhood. In 1979, fighting erupted in many cities, and consequently the Syrian army besieged Aleppo for two years. The government ended the conflict in 1982 by entering the town of Hamah and wiping out several districts, where tens of thousands of families were killed within a week. These events further impacted the growth of the art market in Aleppo and other major cities in Syria. Randa Nassour, who along with her husband Maan, opened Beaux Art Gallery in Damascus in 1980, recalls that the market during the first few years was very hard, with most purchases being by European diplomats and tourists, who appreciated small format artworks, watercolours and engravings. 

By the beginning of the 1980s, then, it was clear that Syria’s economy was suffering from the consequences of the government’s corruption and fiscal mismanagement.[9] By the end of the decade, the gap between the rich and the poor had widened and the middle class – who had purchasing power in the 1960s, 70s and the beginning of the 80s – started suffering from the high cost of living.[10] Since this time and to date, purchasing artworks has become a privilege available only to the bourgeois class.

However, after seeing a decline in the bourgeois class due to the intense nationalisation of businesses in the 1960s, the influx of funds of the mid 1970s caused a business boom. Consequently, a new bourgeois class rose in Syria at the end of the decade, one of doctors, engineers, industrialists and educated people who studied in Beirut, Egypt and Europe before coming back to Syria.  

The infrastructure of the art continued to grow in the 1980, which was sustained by Dr. Najah Al Attar, who was appointed the Minister of Culture from 1976 to 2000. Al Attar supported art by holding exhibitions and purchasing artworks for the government. Her interest in art was the outcome of having a Diploma in art criticism from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland. [11]

In the eighties a new magazine, Al Hayat Al Tashkilya, was established, the government supported many exhibitions a year, in addition to the opening of about seven new galleries in Damascus alone. The new art environment led to seeing, appreciating and consequently buying art. 

Nassour refers to the second half of the 1980s as the “golden era”[12] of the art market. She believes several factors contributed to its flourishing, including the fact that this new bourgeois class had more appreciation for art than the generation before. When this affluent new class bought houses or renovated their old homes, decorative pieces were replaced with artworks by Syrian artists. Furthermore, the volume of art in circulation was high, between the older generation of artists such as Nasser Chaura, Fateh Moudarres and Elias Zayat, and a new generation of young artists who were returning abroad. These included Safwan Dahoul, Hammoud Chantout, Moustafa Ali and Abdallah Mourad, and the prices their works commanded were still relatively low. In a recent radio interview, artist Hammoud Chantout stated that upon returning to Damascus after finishing studying in Paris in 1986, he was one of the first artists in Syria to be able to have his ends meet without working a side job.[13] Which clearly mark the growth of interest in art. 

Another factor that cannot be discounted is our instinct to follow the social group – herd mentality – and to make the kind of decisions as part of that group that one might not perhaps make as an individual. As such, attending exhibitions and purchasing art became part of societal social events. The need to comply with societal expectations grew to such an extent that some buyers began asking artists to replicate works they had seen in their friends’ homes. This begs the question: to what extent was the art valued for what it was, and to what extent was acquiring pieces simply fashionable?

At this time, buying art was rarely for the purpose of building a collection, but rather to fill the walls of a house. With few exceptions, once the home was well decorated, the buyer would stop purchasing art. One such exception was the collector Amer Ajami who believes that his passion for art started when, at the age of 17, travelled to Beirut, entered Antoine Library, “I was astonished to discover a sea of magazines, newspapers, and books, for at the time in Damascus we had only five magazines.''[14] Again, this kind of anecdote points out the importance of an arts infrastructure in encouraging people’s interest in art.

Ajami’s first purchase, in 1986 at the age of 22, was from Beaux Art Gallery, and was a work by Hammoud Chantout (fig. 2),  he purchased for SYP 18,000. (about $500 at the time). Notably, when Ajami’s father asked him about the price, he said SYP 8,000, fearing the reaction of his father, who was of the generation who did not value art as an asset class beyond its decorative worth, as seen in other anecdotes throughout this essay. Today, Ajami has a collection of about 280 carefully selected artworks, the majority by Syrian artists. He is grateful that his work in Canada granted him the “disposal income”[15] which allowed him to pursue his passion. 

What Makes People Buy Art? - Features - Atassi Foundation

Hammoud Chantout, Self portrait, 1977, mixed media on wood. Image courtesy of Amer Ajami

Hammoud Chantout

By contrast, in Homs, the art market was almost completely absent in the 1980s. When asked “to whom did you sell art to in Homs back in 1987?” Mouna Atassi, who had a gallery in the city back then, responded: “To no one. There were no sales, except to my cousins and a few close friends.”[1] Atassi confirms that at the time, most people had no interest in art, in fact, she herself did not have any artworks in her own home. At least, not until the artist Rida Housous visited her at home and made the comment: “beautiful house with empty walls.”[2]

By the mid 1980s, the new bourgeois was joined by a new socio-economic class made up of private business owners who flourished “under government patronage and care”[3], while yet another socio-economic class “was founded by the children of government officials and institutional leaders.”[4] The emergence, growth and eventual merging of these two classes “created a lobbying interest advocating the market economy,”[5] and would become the major art buyers of the 1990s and 2000s. 


Steady Growth


During the first half of the 1990s, the cycle of the 1970s and 1980s repeated itself: the economic distress of the preceding decade was eased by international fiscal aid, while rising costs of living led to a shrinking of the middle class by severely harming its living standard.[6] Meanwhile, writes Samir Saifan: “Syria’s participation in the first Gulf War was rewarded by the US, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries with an inflow of financial support, easy loans.”[7]

The art infrastructure in the 1990s flourished with the opening of about eight new galleries in Damascus, and more than four galleries in Aleppo,[8]. This resulted in a steady growth in the art market, however, artists were still finding difficulties selling their artworks. In an interview with Elham Alsayed, the owner of Gallery AlSayed which opened in Damascus in 1989, she points out the challenges artists face to meet their needs. AlSayed believes that owning “an art gallery is a commercially loosing business, but very successful culturally”. [9]

Similarly, Mouna Atassi stated that sales from within Syria at her gallery in Damascus[10] during the 1990s were extremely slow. Her main clients were Lebanese collectors and people from the Gulf, particularly Qatar. Furthermore, a new purchasing power had developed in the form of the Syrian diaspora, who regularly visited Syria. In fact, Atassi believes that at the time there was “not a single real Syrian art collector”.[11]

To fill the market’s demand for affordable and low-priced artworks, a new market of prints, copies and decorative paintings flourished in parallel with the market of the high price artworks. Moreover, since the end of the 1980s to date, Syria has witnessed the rise of an extreme conservative Islamic class which believes that Islam forbids figurative painting: anything human, animal or bird. Therefore, another market of calligraphy, flowers and decorative artworks has grown in parallel. In fact, some artists, such as Najah Albukai, would paint decorative artworks of old Damascus to supplement their practice and pay the bills. He recalls that, along with other artist friends, they would sign them with fake names and sell them to galleries.[12]

By the end of the 1990 and the beginning of the millennium, the art market was well established with regular buyers. Artist Khaled AlKhani recalls that he sold all his artworks at his first and exhibition in 1999, and his second exhibition in 2000, held at Chaura Gallery in Damascus. He was one of the few young artists who could meets his needs from selling his paintings. 

In 2000, following the passing of Hafiz Al Assad, the Syrian old guard changed the constitution so that Hafiz's son, Bashar Al Assad, could become the next Syrian President. After decades of repression, many Syrians were optimistic about having a young, well-educated president, particularly following his inaugural speech, where he promised openness, democracy, and economic and internal reforms. Economically, Syria opened to private investors, and lifted bans on most imports. Unfortunately, as a consequence of the government’s corruption and the domination over the economy by a group of businessmen associated with the ruling family, most of the population continued to suffer poverty. In short, the poor got poorer, while the rich got richer. 


The Buzz


No major changes or advancements were felt in the art world at this time until 2005, when, up until 2011, changes occurred in rapid succession leading to a boom in the art market. With the opening of Christie’s in the UAE and the first regional auction of Modern and Contemporary Middle Eastern art, in 2006, for the first time, works by Syrian artists such as Fateh Moudarres were reaching new price records – in comparison to what they had been commanding at home in Syria. “For the first time Syrian art became regional,”[13] says Hala Khayat, Regional Director of the Art Dubai fair, and who worked as a specialist at Christie’s in the mid 2000s. The auction was an eye opener for Syrians, causing them to re-evaluate the Modern artworks they had once bought. The auction was a catalyst for the middle class, once Syria’s major art buyers, to sell their artworks for a profit in order to maintain their standard of living. Khayat recalls that she continuously received emails and phone calls from Syrians asking her to value works they had bought a long time ago. Consequently, Syria started to witness the migration of Syrian Modern art to Gulf museums and private collectors, a phenomenon that, unfortunately, continues to this day. This boom also led to the emergence of fakes filling the market in a country where the government neither monitors forgery, nor legally penalises it.

The 2005–2011 art boom did not extend to include the younger generation of Syrian artists who had decided to break away from old school methods and instead experiment with contemporary media such as photography, video and installation. Their work was not commercially appreciated then – either by their professors, who still believed that art should be paintings and sculptures, nor by the public, who were not accustomed to such aesthetics. Author and curator Charlotte Bank points out that by the end of 2010, a “large section from the cultural field” were questioning, “why would a young artist shy away from material success and work with media that nobody understood and that could not be sold?”[14] This brings me to the question: how do art buyers in Syria choose a work of art? 

To answer this, we must first explore the other major factor that led to this boom in the art market which is the buzz created around art when Damascus was chosen to be in 2008 as the Cultural Capital of the Middle East. In preparation for the 2008 big event, Asma Al Assad had worked on what she called a “cultural renaissance”[15] in Syria, self-defining her role as ‘Syria's Cultural Ambassador’ she invested in publishing books about Syrian art, worked on the restoration of badly stored artworks in The National Museum.

By attending exhibitions and buying artworks, Asma encouraged others to do the same, and, as most of the new monied classes were not accustomed to buying art in this way, they were very much influenced either by gallerists’ advice or by what others were collecting. I recall a conversation I had with the artist Marwan Kassab Bashi when he was visiting Damascus in 2009. He said, “instead of using their eyes and heart, people in this country buy art by using their ears''.[16] Indeed, a related factor was the growth of large villas in the Damascene suburb of Yaafour: once again, the art market flourished as people sought to fill the walls of the new homes. The newly opened galleries in the 2000s, the buzz created around Damascus the Cultural Capital of the Middle East, and the interest in the Syrian artworks from the Gulf, all these are factors that led to the prospering of the art market in Syria. 

Whatever the original motivation, I believe that the increase in art buying allowed people to start understanding and appreciating the value of art. However, I go back to my question: to what extent was the art valued for what it was, and to what extent was acquiring the pieces valued as a form of fitting into a societal norm? And why do people collect art? 

Art historian and sociologist Tony Bennett argues that “artworks capture and preserve the essence of their makers and even their owners.”[17] Bennett believes that in the 18th century in France, when the royal collection was available to the public to view, it represented “the power of the king… This was what royal art galleries made visible: addressing their visitors as subjects of the king”.[18] However, collectors cannot quantify their passion for buying art – some say it gives them pleasure, others say they collect for investment. The late professor of psychiatry Dr. Frederick Baekeland argued that “vanity and a desire for social advancement seem to play major roles. In both the East and the West owning works of art has always been thought to imply education, cultivation and refinement. Other reasons that have been adduced are emotionally empty lives at home, acquisitiveness, and the need for immortality.”[19] Therefore, he argued, we find examples such as the American billionaire Jean Paul Getty whose pouring “millions of dollars into art makes much more sense when we think about how his purchases gave him an alternative identity: as a sophisticated European rather than an uncultured American.”[20]

There is no doubt that falling in love with an artwork, then owning the work makes one’s life “full of anticipation, of potential pleasure and excitement.”[21] Mouna Atassi, who started her own collection with her husband Sadek Atassi at the end of 1980s, and which today forms the Atassi Foundation, confirmed that she “went through many stages”. She says: “I started as an inexperienced buyer then developed real passion. Sometimes I like the subject of the artwork, sometimes I believe in the gift of the artist and sometimes just because I hear that such an artist is an important one. Once you start collecting you cannot stop.”[22]




After the legitimisation of fine art at the beginning of the 20th century, it took a few decades for an art infrastructure to establish itself in Syria. In 1960, a class of intellectuals, poets, writers and artists pushed to the establishment of the Faculty of Fine Art, which I consider the first step towards the appreciation of art in society. 

Later on, the gradual growth in the number of art galleries, exhibitions, art critics and publications, along with social influence, all became factors leading to a gradual progression of a society that was not naturally bent towards art collecting to begin with, but which, by the first decade of 21st century, had started building art collections. This also takes into consideration the political and economic dynamics which played a significant role in the fall of the middle class and the rise of a bourgeois class who is the backbone of buying art. 

My research was achieved without my being able to visit Syria, and without interviewing gallerists and art buyers in Syria itself. I attempted to contact a few gallerists and artists who still reside in Syria – some were reluctant to reply, others simply did not reply at all. Therefore, I consider this paper to be part of a long-term research project that could be further explored and expanded on in the future. 


1 Called ‘ketbye’ ( كتبية)
2 Sami, Abdul Rahman Beik , al Qawl Al Haq fee Beirut wa Dimashq, Dar Al Raed Al Arabi, Beirut 1981, p.82
3 Amara, Mohammad, Al Islam wa Al Funun Al Jamila, Dar Al Shorouq, 1991, Cairo, pp.109–142
4 Zayat, Elias, The Visual in Syria, from its Roots to Contemporary Arts, The Journal, Atassi Foundation, 2018
5 Ibid.
6 UNESCO, https://fr.unesco.org/silkroad/content/alep
7 Saad, Dr Farouk and Alfred Bakash, Al Sira Almansia li fannan Ra’ed, Dar Al Mourad, Beirut, 1998, p.16
8 Zayat, Elias, Ehya’ Al Zakira Al Tashkiliya fee Souria, Ministry of Culture, 2008, p.13
9 Abu Khalil AlKabbani was considered the founder of theatre in Syria. Around 1880, he established the first theatre and theatre group in Damascus. Some sheiks complained that theatre was against Syrian norms and customs, and the theatre was burned down, with AlKabbani leaving for Egypt in 1884. 
10 Dagher, Charberl, Interview with the author, Beirut 2019. 
11 Kurd Ali, Mohammad, Al Moqtabas, Issue 3, 1 March 1906, pp.136–138
12 Ibid.
13 Al Khouta Al Mota’athera Lilfan Al Tashkili Al Souri 1900–1970, under publication
14 Jarrous.  
15 It is worth mentioning that since the earliest exhibitions in Syria, Beirut was – and still is – a major market for Syrian artworks.
16 Alou, Abdel Azeez, Mon’ataf Alsitteenat Fee Tareekh Al Founoun Al Jameela Al Mo’asira Fee Souria, Manshourat Al Dar Al Thaqafi of Daadoush Group, Damascus, Syria, pp.176–177
17 Alloun, p. 164
18 Thompson, Nato, Seeing Power: Art and Activism in the 21st Century, Melville House Publishing, 2015. p.84
19 Quoting from Qataya, Sliman, Al Sabab Fee Tadahwor Al Funun Fee Al Iqlim Al Shamali, Majallat Al Thaqafa, Issue 9, 1959
20 The society operated from 1956–59.
21 Hammad, Lubna, ‘A History of Art Associations in Damascus During the 20th Century: From Emergence Until the First Arab Conference of Fine Arts in Damascus in 1971’, Art Writing Prize, Atassi Foundation, December 2020.
22 Interview with Randa Nassour, published by Culture House.
23 Jarrous, ibid. 
24 Mon’ataf Alsitteenat Fee Tareekh Al Founoun Al Jameela Al Mo’asira Fee Souria
25 Alloun, p.29. 
26 Alloun, p.52.
27 Jabbour, Nabil, WhatsApp message, 2021. 
28 Kataya, Nahla, interview with the author, Messenger, 2020. 
29 Atassi, Nashwan, Development of the Syrian Society 1831–2011, Atlas Publications, 2015. p.256
30 He remained in office until 2000. 
31 Atassi, p. 280.  
32 Atassi, p. 292. 
33 Elansari, Lana, interview with the author, Dubai, Feb 2021
34 Dalloul, Ziad, Interview with the author, WhatsApp, 2021. 
35 Ever since 1950, the Syrian state organised under its auspices a yearly exhibition for artists. It later became a biannual event, The Spring Exhibition, and The Autumn Exhibition. 
36 Dalloul, Interview with the author, WhatsApp, 2021.
37 Atassi, pp.310–317
38 The Syrian pound lost more than 10 times its value in 1983, going from four Syrian Pounds per US dollar to 40 Syrian Pounds per dollar in 1987, then to 46 Syrian Pounds in 1990. By then the rate of inflation was 60%
39 Jarrous, Souad, Nisa’ Souriat, A Group Syrian Writers, page 244 
40 Nassour, Randa, Interview with the author, WhatsApp, 2020 – 2021
41 Chantout, Hammoud, Rozana Radio, 2020
42 Ajami, Amer, interview with the author, Dubai, December 2020
43 Ibid.
44 Atassi, Mouna, interview with the author, Dubai, January 2021
45 Ibid.
46 Saifan, Samir, The Road to Economic Reform in Syria, The University of St Andrews Centre for Syrian Studies, Scotland UK, 2011. p.10
47 Saifan, pp.13–14
48 Ibid.
49 Atassi, pp.310-317
50 Saifan, p.10
51 Alloun, pp.62–64
52 Jarrous Suad, The Kuwaiti Siassah Newspapers, 25 August 1995
53 Originally opening a space in Homs in 1986, she relocated the gallery to Damascus in 1992 under the name of Atassi Gallery
54 Atassi, Mouna, Interview with the author, Dubai, January 2021
55 AlBoukai, Najah, Interview with the author, Paris, August 2018
56 Khayat, Hala, Interview with the author, Dubai, 2021
57 Bank, Charlotte, The Contemporary Art Scene in Syria: Social Critique and Artistic Movement, Routledge. 2020. p.55
58 Pelham, Nicolas, ‘Banker, warlord, princess: the many lives of Asma Assad, Here’s how a girl from west London became the unlikely winner of Syria’s war’, Financial Review, 18 March 2021
59 Marwan, Damascus, 2009
60 Bennett, Tony, The Birth of the Museum: History, Theory, Politics, Routledge, 1995
61 ibid, p.36
62 Baekeland, Frederick, ‘Psychological Aspects of Art Collecting’, Psychiatry, Vol. 44, February 1981, pp.45–46.  
63 Thompson, Erin, Why People Collect Art, aeon, 23 August 2016
64 Frederick, p. 50
65 Atassi, Mouna, interview with the author, Dubai, 24 January 2021



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