The royal family of Qatar — the tiny Gulf kingdom that is the world's largest exporter of liquefied natural gas — has set its acquisitive sights on Christie's, with the nation's emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, speaking openly to the press about his interest in the world's leading auction house.Already storied for major art purchases, including the so-called "Rockefeller Rothko" that went for $72.8 million in May 2007, the emir told the Financial Times that "we are investing everywhere, even in Harrods" and that regarding Christie's, "it depends on the opportunity, if a good one presents itself we will not hesitate." Suddenly, art-watchers around the globe are asking: Who is the Emir of Qatar?
The 58-year-old ruler, who attended the prestigious Sandhurst Military Academy in England and took the kingdom's reins in 1995 after a coup that ousted his father, Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad Al Thani, is known as a globetrotting diplomat who made international headlines in 2008 when he met with Israeli minister Tzipi Livni as significant gesture in pursuing a dialogue with Israel. Then there's the glamorous side of the emir's ultra-luxe lifestyle, epitomized by the widely circulated image in the London tabloids of his beautiful wife, Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al-Missned, wearing a pair of $960 white Chanel faux–fur boots with three-and-a-half-inch icicle heels during the couple's recent three-day stay in the Queen of England's residence last month, a bid to increase trade between the kingdoms.
The Sheikha, one of three wives of the Emir, is also an international advocate for women's rights, serving as a UNESCO special envoy for education and maintaining a Web site to help admirers keep track of her activities. (Unlike in some Gulf states, women of Qatar vote and are able to obtain driver's licenses.)
But what does the Emir, whose personal fortune is reported to be $2.4 billion — just after the king of Morocco, according to Wikipedia's list of the richest royals — need Christie's for? He already uses the auction house as a shopping destination, as evidenced by his acquisition of the exquisite marble statue "The Jenkins Venus" (dating from circa 1st or 2nd century) at Christie's in 2002 for a whopping $12.7 million. Its safe to say he could continue to savor the fruits of the its without having to take on the thorny obligations of owning the company.
Reports of a possible bid prompted the image-conscious Groupe Artemis, François Pinault's family-run holding company that has owned Christie's outright since purchasing it for $1.2 billion in 1999, to issue a statement:
"Following recent press articles, Artemis indicates that no sale process has been initiated regarding Christie's, the world's leading art business, which is one of its strategic assets. Artemis reaffirms its intention to pursue the long-term development of Christie's and its support of the company's plan to build upon its global position."
Since Christie's is privately owned, unlike its arch-rival Sotheby's, there is no viable way of determining the authenticity or seriousness of any prospective bid, even if such talk comes from a head of state. Were the emir to consider purchasing Sotheby's, on the other hand, that company — which is traded on the New York Stock Exchange under the symbol BID, and is beholden to transparency rules established by the the Securities & Exchange Commission — would have to disclose key stages of such a process.
Asked about the possibility of a sale, one prominent art-world figure close to multibillionaire Pinault, who insisted on anonymity, told ARTINFO that it was impossible to know how much weight to give the reports. "This is the kind of thing that isn't discussed, and that these guys don’t talk about," according to the source. "I could understand why something like this [a takeover] could happen, but François won’t tell me." (Oddly, rumors over the summer in the French press about the same Gulf bid for Christie's didn’t travel to Britain or the United States, though Artemis also issued a denial at the time.)
So, how much is Christie’s worth in today’s market?
Certainly it would be much more than what Pinault paid for the company, even after adding in the additional $250 million he had to fork over to pay off price-fixing penalties stemming from a class-action antitrust lawsuit over violations that took place before his takeover. In the first half of 2010, for example, Christie's sold approximately $2.3 billion of art and objets at auction, plus another several hundred million or so in private treaty sales, including those of its wholly-owned gallery subsidiary, Haunch of Venison. For comparison sake, Sotheby's current market value, based on the overall share value of its stock in current trading, is approximately $2.9 billion.
Christie’s would have to be valued at least by that much, not counting the so-called premium a suitor would add for the benefit of its billionaire shareholders.
Further speculation that Christie's is on the block, or might at some point be, is fueled by the perception that Pinault's son and heir, 48-year-old François-Henri Pinault, the CEO and executive director of Groupe Artemis, has little interest in keeping the auction house under family control. Married to screen siren Selma Hayak, the younger Pinault has not evinced the same avid passion for art collecting as his father.
Whatever the outcome, the notion of a Gulf potentate, even one who runs his kingdom like a managing director of a large corporation, owning Christie's is sobering to some. After all, while Qatar is a relatively liberal-minded corner of the region, its mores are still a quite different from the West, the art masterpieces of which passes through Christie's yearly. For instance, the press has hounded the emir ever since he reportedly imprisoned one of his daughters in Qatar after she secretly wed her Egyptian lover in a Gulf version of "Romeo and Juliet." Were he to take over Christie's, pity the specialist or business manager who doesn't follow his rules!