Qatar gains no­tice in buy­ing master­pieces

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - ARTS & STYLES - By ROBIN POGREBIN

The prices have been record break­ing, and star­tling.

More than $70 mil­lion for Rothko’s “White Cen­ter” in 2007, a high-wa­ter mark for that artist. More than $20 mil­lion later that year for a Damien Hirst pill cabi­net, then a record for a liv­ing artist. And $250 mil­lion for Cézanne’s “Card Play­ers” in 2011, the high­est known price ever paid for a paint­ing.

Given the se­crecy of the art mar­ket, few knew at the time who had laid out such huge sums. But it has be­come in­creas­ingly clear that those master­pieces and many more have been pur­chased by Qatar, a tiny coun­try with enor­mous wealth and cul­tural am­bi­tions to match.

“They’re the most im­por­tant buy­ers of art in the mar­ket to­day,” said Pa­tri­cia G. Ham­brecht, the chief busi­ness de­vel­op­ment of­fi­cer of Phillips auc­tion house. “The amount of money be­ing spent is mind-bog­gling.”

The pur­chas­ing is di­rected through in­ter­me­di­aries by Sheika al Mayassa bint Ha­mad bin Khal­ifa al-Thani, chair­woman of the Qatar Mu­se­ums Au­thor­ity and a sis­ter to Qatar’s new emir. At age 30 she has be­come one of the most in­flu­en­tial play­ers in the art world.

No one knows ex­actly how much Sheika al Mayassa has spent on be­half of her fam­ily or the mu­seum au­thor­ity since she was named chair­woman by her fa­ther, the for­mer emir, in 2006. But ex­perts es­ti­mate the ac­qui­si­tion bud­get reaches $1 bil­lion a year and say the Qataris have used it to se­cure a host of undis­puted mod­ern and con­tem­po­rary master­pieces by Fran­cis Ba­con, Roy Licht­en­stein, Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons.

Where all this art will even­tu­ally end up re­mains some­thing of a mys­tery. But it seems clear that, just as Qatar has used its oil riches to boost its in­flu­ence in the Mid­dle East with ven­tures like arm­ing Syr­ian rebels, its wealth is also be­ing de­ployed to help the coun­try be­come a force in the world of cul­ture.

This ef­fort to cre­ate a first-class con­tem­po­rary art col­lec­tion, es­sen­tially from noth­ing, has buoyed the in­ter­na­tional art mar­ket, ex­perts say, and con­trib­uted to some of the es­ca­la­tion in prices.

Un­til Qatar’s 2007 pur­chase, for ex­am­ple, the most ex­pen­sive Rothko ever sold at auc­tion (“Homage to Matisse”) had drawn $22 mil­lion in 2005, less than one-third of the price Qatar paid. In 2011 the $250 mil­lion spent for “Card Play­ers” was four times the high­est pub­lic price ever paid for a work by that artist.

“When they fin­ish their buy­ing pro­gram and with­draw from the mar­ket,” said David Nash, a New York dealer who spent 35 years as a top ex­ec­u­tive with Sotheby’s, “they will leave a big hole which I don’t see any­one else ready to fill at their level.”

In re­cent years the Qatar Mu­se­ums Au­thor­ity has cre­ated three high-pro­file mu­se­ums in the cap­i­tal, Doha, by the ar­chi­tects Jean Nou­vel, I. M. Pei and Jean-François Bodin. But each of th­ese projects — a new home for the National Mu­seum of Qatar now un­der con­struc­tion; the Mu­seum of Is­lamic Art; and Mathaf: Arab Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art — is fo­cused on re­gional art and artists. So ex­perts ex­pect that a good por­tion of the Western col­lec­tion be­ing amassed will be­come part of a new con­tem­po­rary art in­sti­tu­tion in the coun­try, though of­fi­cials have yet to an­nounce that.

The an­nual ac­qui­si­tion bud­gets of ma­jor mu­se­ums typ­i­cally amount to just a small frac­tion of what Qatar is spend­ing. The Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art in New York, for ex­am­ple, spent $32 mil­lion to ac­quire art for the fis­cal year that ended in June 2012; the Metropoli­tan Mu­seum of Art, also in New York, $39 mil­lion.

While other gulf states like Abu Dhabi and Dubai are also try­ing to be­come cul­tural cap­i­tals, those two mem­bers of the United Arab Emi­rates have teamed up with ex­ist­ing in­sti­tu­tions — namely the Lou­vre and the Guggen­heim — to es­tab­lish them­selves. Qatar, mean­while, is go­ing it alone.

“They see them­selves as an in­ter­na­tional cen­ter for many cul­tures,” Allen L. Keiswet­ter, a scholar at the Mid­dle East In­sti­tute in Wash­ing­ton, said of Qatar. “It es­tab­lishes them as an­other rea­son to be a des­ti­na­tion for travel, for busi­ness. If you want to at­tract peo­ple, you need to have a rea­son to go there.”

In an in­ter­view in 2010 with The New York Times, the sheika sug­gested that es­tab­lish­ing art in­sti­tu­tions might chal­lenge Western pre­con­cep­tions about Mus­lim so­ci­eties. “My fa­ther of­ten says, in or­der to have peace, we need to first re­spect each other’s cul­tures,” she said. “And peo­ple in the West don’t un­der­stand the Mid­dle East. They come with Bin Laden in their heads.”

Sheika al Mayassa ap­pears to com­bine Western and Mus­lim in­flu­ences. Some­times she dresses like a stylish busi­ness ex­ec­u­tive; some­times she wears a tra­di­tional black abaya. She speaks French and English as well as Ara­bic.

The sheika does not have a for­mal back­ground in art his­tory, hav­ing stud­ied po­lit­i­cal science and lit­er­a­ture at Duke Univer­sity in North Carolina.

Both she and her hus­band, Sheik Jas­sim bin Ab­du­laziz al-Thani, also did post­grad­u­ate work at Columbia Univer­sity be­fore re­turn­ing to Qatar.”

“The sheika has a very grand vi­sion and is a very ed­u­cated woman,” said Leila Heller, a New York dealer with many Mid­dle Eastern artists.

“She wants to make Doha a hub for art in the re­gion, where peo­ple don’t nec­es­sar­ily have to fly to New York and to Paris and to L.A. to see great shows,” she said. “Doha has an am­bi­tious plan of open­ing close to 20 mu­se­ums of dif­fer­ent kinds.”

THE YORCK PRO­JECT: 10.000 MEISTERWERKE DER MALEREI

Sheika al Mayassa was in­volved in the pur­chase of the ‘‘Card Play­ers’’ for $250 mil­lion.

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