Behind Qatar's Secret Shopping Spree for the World's Warhols, Rothkos, and Other Modern Masterpieces

Behind Qatar's Secret Shopping Spree for the World's Warhols, Rothkos, and Other Modern Masterpieces

Qatar's ambitions in the realm of art and culture are no secret: the emir has talked of his desire to purchase Christie's, and last month the royal family poached the auction house's chief executive, Edward J. Dolman, to join its Qatar Museums Authority. The Authority — which is led by the royal family — has had a lot on its agenda in recent years: founding the Museum of Islamic Art in 2008; inaugurating Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art at the end of last year; and now planning a National Museum of Qatar designed by Jean Nouvel, to open in 2013.

To fill up these museums — and to satisfy the royal family's collecting urge — Qatar has been responsible for the most spectacular recent art sales around the globe, according to the Art Newspaper, which declares the wealthy emirate to be "the world's biggest buyer in the art market — by value, at any rate." Among its high-profile art investments, Qatar funded the Murakami show at Versailles last year, which will be mounted in Doha in 2012.

Some of the country's other collecting activities are more discreet. According to the Art Newspaper, many "well-placed sources in a position to know" declined to go on the record but connected scores of big sales to Qatar, including 11 Rothko paintings from the collection of J. Ezra Merkin that he was forced to sell due to his role in the Madoff affair (Marc Glimcher of the Pace Gallery brokered the sale); $400 million worth of art from the Sonnabend estate, including major works by Lichtenstein and Koons; and Warhol's "The Men in Her Life," acquired for $63.4 million at Phillips de Pury in November 2010.

A key player in Qatar's art buying is Philippe Ségalot, whose partnership, Giraud, Pissarro, Ségalot is based in Paris and New York. He was involved in many of Qatar's purchases, including brokering February's sale of the late filmmaker Claude Berri's collection — which raised many eyebrows in France. Berri's two sons had first agreed to donate the collection — which, though small, included paintings by Robert Ryman, Ad Reinhardt, and Lucio Fontana — to the Pompidou Center in lieu of paying estate taxes, an amount said to represent the collection's fair-market value, according to Artclair. But Qatar is said to have offered €50 million for the works — close to 50% more than the Pompidou's estimation of its worth, and an offer that Berri's heirs apparently could not refuse.

The Qatari royal family is known for its voracious collectors. Sheikh Saud bin Mohammed bin Ali Al-Thani spent millions on art in the 1990s and early 2000s, but ran into trouble in 2005 when he was accused of over-charging the government for his purchases and pocketing the difference. Placed under house arrest, he then re-emerged on the art scene. Milton Esterow, editor of ARTnews, told the Independent that the sheikh, who is the second cousin of Qatar's ruling emir, has spent more on art than any other collector in the last 12 months.

The emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, purchased Damien Hirst's pill cabinet "Lullaby Spring" at Sotheby's in spring 2007 for £9.7 million ($19 million), setting an auction record for a work by a living European artist. The most active institutional roles are played by the emir's children: his daughter, Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, chairs the board of the Qatar Museums Authority, and his son, Sheikh Hassan bin Mohammad bin Ali Al-Thani, founded Mathaf, the country's museum of modern Arab art.