To most of us, the art world is a fickle plaything for the elite, its value determined by the whims of wealthy collectors and their unlimited cash flow.
For years, Sheikh Saud Al-Thani of Qatar was the most prominent of these collectors, acquiring $1 billion of art with the oil and gas-rich emirate’s money.
The former Qatari culture minister and cousin of the Arab state’s current ruler died suddenly in his London home last Monday at age 48 (the cause of death has not yet been revealed), leaving behind a controversial legacy as the world’s biggest art buyer who remains shrouded in scandal and debt.
A day after Al-Thani mysteriously passed away, his watch sold at Sotheby’s Geneva for $24 million to an anonymous bidder, setting a new record for a timepiece sold at auction.
Al-Thani reportedly gave his Henry Graves Supercomplication by Patek Philippe and some $70 million in other assets to Sotheby’s, according to the auction house’s financial statements, to help pay off debts from defaulting on payments for purchases. (Sotheby’s said it could not comment on “private business relations.”)
Al-Thani began collecting on behalf of the Emir in the late ‘90s as part of an effort to transform Qatar into an international cultural hub.
“Unlike Turkey or Egypt, we have no art-historical tradition,” he told The Telegraph in 2002. “His Highness the Emir would like Qatar to become a cultivated country."
Al-Thani officially entered the art world to great fanfare in 2000, when he spent more than $15 million on 136 photographs by masters like Man Ray and Alfred Stieglitz.
He quickly earned a reputation for driving up bidding prices and shelling out exorbitant amounts of money on an eclectic range of art, from Islamic ceramics to 18th century French furniture and vintage cars.
Among his purchases: a $9.57 million Fabergé egg bought at Christie’s in 2002, a complete set of Audubon’s Birds of America for $8.8 million, and a Roman marble statue known as the Jenkins Venus for nearly $13 million from Christie’s in London.
In 2004, Al-Thani’s eight-year buying spree ended with the purchase of £15 million worth of Islamic art, acquired in one week from various London auction houses.
Much of the art he collected during those years has found permanent homes in Qatar’s five existing and planned museums, including its Museum of Islamic Art and Photography Museum, Al-Thani’s biggest passions.
In 2000, he founded the Al-Thani Awards for Middle Eastern photographers, which purports to be the biggest photography competition in the region.
He also amassed an impressive personal collection, commissioning portraits by famous photographers including Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Helmut Newton, who was paid $210,000 for a three-day sitting.
In 2005, the 38-year-old Qatari royal disappeared from the art scene amid allegations that he embezzled millions in family money and misled the government about the value of his purchases.
“He single handedly inflated the market,” Dr. Massumeh Farhad, curator of Islamic Art at the Freer and Sackler Galleries of Art in Washington, D.C., told ARTNews at the time. “If I were the government I would want to make sure those were fair prices.”
But Farhad’s skepticism was never justified by authorities. After a brief stint under house arrest, Al-Thani was back on the art scene within a year, this time only as a private collector. In 2008, he bought up 90 percent of the works on sale in a Chinese art auction at Christie’s.
Three years later, he reclaimed his position as the world’s top art buyer (ARTNews reported in 2011that Al-Thani had spent more than any other individual collector that year).
But he remained a notoriously impulsive spender, eliciting both detached amusement and criticism from art experts. BBC Arts Editor Will Gompertz recently praised his “keen eye” and “aesthete’s sensibilities,” while Christie’s Director and International Head of Photography Philippe Garner has admitted to admiring Al-Thani’s passion, but said he was “very much aware of the potentially destabilizing force when a collector arrives on the market with seemingly unlimited resources,” which can lead to “unrealistic expectations on the part of vendors.”
Indeed, controversy was never far behind Al-Thani. In 2012, he allegedly defaulted on a $19.7 million rare coin purchase, and was condemned by the dealer’s lawyer for consistently “bidding when he knows he’s not going to be able to pay.”
Al-Thani’s lawyers said he settled his debts, though $15 million of his assets were temporarily frozen. (According to Doha News, it was around this time that Al-Thani sacrificed his Supercomplication watch to pay for the debts.)
He was later sued by his lawyers in London for failing to pay $419,400 in counsel fees when his assets were frozen.
While Al-Thani will be remembered for spearheading Qatar’s glamorous art expansion, the Emir and his 31-year-old daughter, Al-Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, have taken the reins in recent years. The Sheikha Al-Mayassa, whose first job was interning for the TriBeCa Film Festival in New York, now runs Qatar Museums and has secured several big purchases in recent years, including works by Damien Hirst, Mark Rothko, and Andy Warhol, as well as one of Cezanne’s “Card Players.”
As long as Sotheby’s remains tight-lipped about Al-Thani’s alleged debts, the Qatari royal family will likely settle them quietly and continue to drive up prices in the contemporary art market. In the meantime, keep your eyes peeled for the Sheikha Al-Mayassa at Miami Art Basel in a couple of weeks.