*Previously posted on Feb. 23, 2012.
The royal family of Qatar recently paid 250 million dollars – the highest amount ever paid for a work of art – for Cezanne’s Card Players. Blink, wipe the dribble going down the side of your mouth and breathe; amazing I know. But what makes this painting so fabulous? Besides the fact that it was done by the great Paul Cezanne, the man who not only inspired Cubism but Picasso himself called him “the father of us all”; it’s one of five canvases created and the only one still owned privately. The other four paintings belong to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Musee D’Orsay, the Barnes Foundation and Courtland Institue of Art. However, now that the well-kept secret is out, I’d say that it was right under our noses the whole time. Consider the facts: Qatar – an Arab state comprised of less than a million people (850,000) is one of the richest in the world because it is sitting (along with its United Arab Emirates neighbors) on 10% of the world’s oil reserve. A tiny country filled with happily employed and wealthy people who pretty much smile all day had no issue whatsoever in spending a quarter of a billion dollars on a painting.
Besides the Royal family’s utopian, politically-stable, country’s wealth situation they are among the top property owners in London where things are handled in pounds, not dollars (major major difference). Their British real estate empire is worth approximately ₤10 billion pounds. Blink yet again please, wipe the drool that has dripped all over your pants and take a deep breath; it’s beyond words. But getting back on the whole right-under-our-nose thing, the Emir’s daughter, 28 year-old Sheikha Al-Mayassa became the head of Qatar’s Museums Authority in 2005 and has been in charge of promoting art and creating the most amazing art collection since. But she’s not alone in this art power take over. Very intelligently, since her family failed to bid high enough to buy all of Christie’s auction house, she just took their chairman Edward Dolman to be the executive director of the Museums Authority instead. Moreover, with the help of the well-known G.P.S. art dealership she has managed to reportedly buy the $72.8 million dollar “Rockefellar Rothko”, $400 million dollars worth of art from the Sonnabend estate, Warhol’s famous “The Men in her Life” and around eleven other Rothko’s from the collection of Berni Madoff’s ex-associate, J.Ezra Merkin. The ArtNewspaper not only dubbed them the “world’s biggest buyer in the art market” but the entity responsible for most of the major anonymous purchases of the past six years.
I’m sure now you’re wondering how the al-Thani family actually managed to snap it from all the major shark dealers out there. The answer to that is outbidding them. The deal for the sale was actually closed in 2011 before its previous owner, Greek shipping magnate George Embiricos, died last December. Two blue-chip dealers were also after the Card Players, Larry Gagosian and William Acquavella. Rumor says that they offered up to $220 million but that didn’t make the cut.
The most important aspect of the purchase is not the monetary issue but the new standards this sale has set in the art market. No sale has ever matched this one, not in auction, not privately. The record for the most expensive work sold at auction is held by a painting of one of Picasso’s lovers, Marie-Therese, as it was bought last year for $106 million dollars. Private sales are somewhat of a different matter. A different range of numbers are thrown around here to the point where Jackson Pollock’s “No. 5” painting from 1948 holds the record with $140 million but that’s as far as its gone. All this goes to show that Qatar is a tiny something to keep on our radar. Good things come in small packages, right?