On Establishing Eco-Systems and Buying What You Love

On Establishing Eco-Systems and Buying What You Love

Diane Abela, Consultant, Business Development, Middle East, at the fine art valuation and advisory business Gurr Johns, shares her journey from enthusiast to expert with ArtScoops

What prompted you to enter the world of art consultancy?

My background is actually in finance; I gained a Master’s in Financial Risk Management and then joined the family insurance business, Commercial Insurance. I then worked in the Albert Abela Group of companies in catering, technology and agriculture, mainly restructuring and developing the businesses. However, I always had a passion for art, from painting and making it, to art history and, later, collecting. 
The Art Business course, which I took and greatly enjoyed, was a huge eye-opener; I learned so much, while also becoming aware of how little I’d actually known about the industry as an outsider!
Seeing the mistakes I’d made when purchasing my own art made me realise that advising people like myself, with a passion for art, was what I wanted to do.
I joined Gurr Johns, a fine art valuation and advisory business, shortly afterwards, as their consultant for the Middle East, which provided me with an exciting opportunity to develop the business in the region.
I now work with both private and institutional clients, mainly in the region, advising them on acquisitions and sales, collection building and management, across all categories of art.


Diane Abela


Can you talk us through a typical day?

Since my main area of focus is the Middle East, which is either two or three hours ahead of the UK, I typically wake up early to start going through my emails and following up with clients. I’m usually working on a variety of projects across a broad scope of categories and clientele simultaneously, so things can get hectic. One of my current projects is a client who’s selling their entire collection, so I’ve been extremely busy going through the various stages involved, from restorations and valuations to consigning at auction. The catalogue is now being printed, so it’s almost there, which is exciting! 
Research is an essential part of my role as an art consultant and probably takes up between 60% and 70% of my day. I’m very lucky to be surrounded by an amazing in-house team with different areas of expertise. I’m also very proud of the fact that I’ve closed some of the biggest deals in the art world in the last couple years. No two days are the same and that’s what I love about it!

What do you regard as the highlight of your career so far?

It’s difficult to pick out specific points in time as I’m lucky enough to be involved in a region that’s witnessing an incredible amount of activity across the art scene. Playing a part in this development and helping to establish an art eco-system in the Middle East by working with collectors and major institutions is incredibly exciting and feels like a real privilege, more so as momentum continues to build. For example, we’re now witnessing new projects taking shape, such as the Beirut Museum of Art (BEMA), in which I’m involved, and the setting up of several private foundations. 
Personal projects that have given me particular satisfaction include the 2016 exhibition of works by Ai Weiwei, alongside other artists, titled ‘The Silent Echo’, which was a huge challenge, given its scale and location in Baalbeck, and the launch of the Art Business course I developed in partnership with the Ecole Superieure des Affaires (ESA) in Lebanon. The course – the first of its kind in the country – is now in its third consecutive year, which makes me very proud.


Diane Abela

What trends have you noticed in the Middle Eastern art market in recent years?

One of the main shifts I’ve spotted is increasing interest in the work of contemporary artists, especially amongst the younger generations. Of course, the Modern masters, such as Shafic Abboud, Paul Guiragossian and Mahmoud Saïd, will always retain their place in the market, but I think the younger generations are really connecting with contemporary talents. This has been made easier through the internet, especially social media, giving artists the opportunity to put their work out there without geographical barriers and for collectors to follow artists and art events such as auctions, gallery shows and fairs, online.
Other aspects of globalisation will support this trend further, as we can see with the large number of museums cross-collecting, for example. The regional market is also benefiting from more research being undertaken on it – something that was in short supply until recently – which is helping to further consolidate the market and boost confidence.

What role do you envisage for the online market in the broader art industry? 

The potential that the online art market has is huge and we can see evidence of that growth already, year on year. I think the market’s development will follow patterns that we’re witnessing in other, more established segments, where buyers feel confident and comfortable when making purchases. Some possible barriers which may be putting prospective buyers off, like the lack of in-depth information online, still require attention. The model also needs to be fine-tuned in key areas, such as the returns process, which should be made as smooth as possible, and shipping costs, which remain quite high. However, once these issues are resolved, I’m sure the online market is going to explode. 

If you could give collectors three pieces of advice before buying, what would they be?

Firstly, view as much art as you can, by visiting museums, auctions and galleries, and looking online, for example, to develop your eye and work out what appeals to you the most; secondly, do your research by reading up on the artists and works you’re interested in and don’t be afraid to ask for advice; and thirdly, it might be a bit of a cliché, but go for works you love. Buying well is important, but you also need to feel passionate about a piece of art that you live with.

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