Qatar, the world’s biggest contemporary art buyer

The small but energy-rich Gulf state of Qatar is the world’s biggest buyer in the art market—by value, at any rate—and is behind most of the major modern and contemporary art deals over the past six years, according to The Art Newspaper.

Coat of arms of Qatar

Last month, Sheikha Al Mayassa Bint Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani—the 27-year-old daughter of the Emir of Qatar and a driving force behind the country’s art buying—announced that Christie’s chairman, Edward Dolman, will become executive director of her office. Dolman will also join the board of trustees of the Qatar Museums Authority (QMA), which oversees museums and cultural initiatives in the country.

Sheikha Al Mayassa at the opening of Takashi Murakami’s exhibition at Versailles in 2010

Dolman will be working on art acquisitions for the growing network of museums, which are ­directed by the art historian and former head of the Rhode Island School of Design, Roger Mandle. According to Dolman: “Qatar is looking to deliver a series of ­exciting cultural projects in time for the World Cup in 2022.”

Qatar flag

Among the purchases Qatar is believed to have made are:

• The “Merkin Rothkos”: A $310m deal saw 11 Rothkos sold by court order to an “unidentified buyer” in 2009. They came from the collection of financier J. Ezra Merkin, who is being sued in New York over his role as provider of funds to convicted Ponzi-scheme fraudster Bernard Madoff; the collection was the largest private holding of Rothkos in the world. They were subsequently exhibited at the Garage Centre in Moscow, leading to rumours that they had been bought by the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, which was strenuously denied. Two very well placed sources maintain that they have gone to Qatar.

• The Sonnabend estate: $400m worth of art from the estate of the famous art dealer, comprising major works by Lichtenstein and Koons. The deal was negotiated privately in 2007-08, going to GPS; multiple sources identified its client as Qatar. Ségalot told us that “the group was sold to more than one client”.
• The Claude Berri dation: A group of nine works by Ryman, Reinhardt, Morandi, Serra and Fontana was promised to the Pompidou Centre in Paris in lieu of tax. But the heirs of the film ­director finally sold them through Ségalot for about €50m to Qatar; he did not deny this but said “the reality was less exotic than the French press said at the time”.

• Andy Warhol’s The Men in Her Life, 1962, which sold for $63.4m at Phillips de Pury in New York in November 2010, in a sale ­orchestrated by Philippe Ségalot. He insists that the work was acquired by a US buyer. But a source who bought regularly from Ségalot said that sales often went through his US company, so while the buyer was technically American, the end owner could be of any nationality.

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