What You Need to Know About the World's Most Powerful Contemporary Art Collector: the State of Qatar

What You Need to Know About the World's Most Powerful Contemporary Art Collector: the State of Qatar
Sheikha Al Mayassa
(Cortesia da Victor Pinchuk Foundation © 2011 (foto por Sergei Illin))

News leaked Thursday that the al-Thani's, the royal family of Qatar, purchased Paul Cezanne's "The Card Players" (1895) for a record $250 million in a private sale sometime in 2011 — the highest reported price ever paid for a single work of art. This isn't the first major painting that the clan has scooped up in the last few years. In fact, their modern and contemporary art buying spree prompted the Art Newspaper to dub them last July the "world's biggest buyer in the art market," reporting that they are the faces behind some of the art world's most high-profile sales in the last six years. ARTINFO brought together all the facts you need to know about this powerful group of oil magnates-cum-art collectors.


The Emir's 28-year-old daughter Sheikha Al Mayassa has widely been reported as the mastermind behind the tiny emirate's contemporary art shopping spree. After graduating from Duke University in 2005 and a brief stint as an intern for the Tribeca Film Festival (which she later brought to Qatar), she became the head of the Qatar Museums Authority, where she has been in charge of creating Qatar's now-world-class art collection in just a few years.

But she hasn't done it alone. She has made several high-profile hires in the last few years to help her out. She hired the former president of the Rhode Island School of Design, Roger Mandle, to help direct the authority early in her tenure. In 2011, after the Emir failed in a bid to purchase Christie's auction house, the QMA poached its chairman, Edward Dolman, instead. He now serves as the QMA's executive director. For the family's art-collecting needs they often work with the notoriously discreet G.P.S. art dealership, which consists of Franck Giraud, Lionel Pissarro (grandson of Camille), and Philippe Segalot. In addition to G.P.S., former head of Impressionist and modern art at Christie's Guy Bennett was reportedly involved in the Cezanne sale.


The Qataris have been linked to some very expensive purchases in the modern and contemporary categories over the last few years. They were the reported buyers of 11 Rothko paintings from the collection of J. Ezra Merkin, who was forced to sell after the Madoff scandal; $400 million worth of art from the Sonnabend estate (Koons and Lichtenstein works among them); the $72.8 million "Rockefeller Rothko" purchased at auction in May 2007; and Andy Warhol's "The Men in Her Life," which they picked up for a cheap $63.4 million at Phillips de Pury in November 2010.


Qatar, near the southeastern end of the Arabian Peninsula, is in somewhat of a cultural arms race with its neighbor Abu Dhabi, which is just 200 miles away across the Persian Gulf. In 2008 Qatar it unveiled the I.M. Pei-designed Museum of Islamic Art, in 2010 it opened Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, and in 2014 the Qatar National Museum will reopen in a newly-designed building by architect Jean Nouvel. Abu Dhabi is building its own slew of art museums, including outposts of the Louvre and the Guggenheim, on Saadiyat Island — though those projects have been started, stopped, restarted again because of construction woes.


The short answer to why they are splurging on art is because they can. It is a little more complicated to that though. $250 million is a lot of money for most of the world — even most art collectors. But it's small change compared to some of the other investments that the Qataris have made over the last few years. Qatar has become of the largest property owners in London — a designation that doesn't come cheap. Their British real estate investments over the last few years are rumored to total £10 billion ($15.8 billion). That's a Cezanne 60-times over. In 2010 the Emir bought Harrods for £1.5 billion, and a Qatari investment group is funding Renzo Piano's under-construction Shard London Bridge building as well, at a price reported to be in the £2 billion range.

Also, it is important to note that two other dealers — Acquavella Gallery and Larry Gagosian — were reportedly interested in the painting, and rumored to have just underbid the al-Thanis. The Art Market Monitor blog has already pointed out that dealers don't buy for themselves, but for other clients — meaning there are probably at least two other collectors out there willing to pay a similar amount (dealers would hike up the price after purchase, of course). As astronomical as the sum is, it isn't inconceivable that Qatar bought the work as an investment. In ten years it could be worth $350 million to the right person.


The tiny state contains fewer than a million people (850,000 at last count), and half of them live in the capital, Doha. It's awash in oil and gas resources, making it the country with the highest per capita GDP (PPP-adjusted) in the world at $102,700, coupled with the lowest unemployment, which is at a barely-there 0.4 percent, according to the CIA World Factbook.

Because it is so rich (and so employed), Qatar's ruling family has not experienced the social unrest that many other countries in the region have had to overcome in the last year. On the contrary, Qatar played a major role in pushing the Arab League to assist Libyan rebels, and has denounced the Syrian government for violence against its people. Politically stable with a wealthy population, Qatar's government is free to spend a quarter of a billion dollars on a Cezanne without anyone looking up.