Last year, in a single week of Islamic sales at London’s top auction houses, one man spent more than £15 million. It was the culmination of an eight-year shopping spree that had seen the 38-year-old become the biggest art buyer in the world, as he scooped up objects and works of art to the tune of more than £1 billion. At this year’s Islamic sales, however, which concluded yesterday, he has been a notable absentee. In the art world this week, there has been only one subject: his mysterious disappearance in a fog of scandal.
For Sheikh Saud Al-Thani of Qatar is under arrest in the Qatari capital Doha, pending an investigation into the alleged misuse of public funds -on the orders of his cousin, the all-powerful Emir. According to fresh reports in the respected monthly The Art Newspaper, Islamic art dealer Oliver Hoare, better known as a lover of Diana, Princess of Wales, has now had his name dragged into the investigation.
Al-Thani, whom I interviewed three years ago, first stepped into the limelight in 2000, when he spent more than $15 million on 136 vintage photographs, including masterpieces by Man Ray and Alfred Stieglitz, from Hamburg photographer Werner Bokelberg’s collection. He also set a world record at Sotheby’s a year earlier when he paid £507,500 for Gustave LeGray’s mid-19th-century seascape, Grande Vague: Sete. “Sheikh Saud swooped down as if out of the blue,” recalls Philippe Garner, a writer and photography expert who is now a director of Christie’s. “He wanted fabulous examples of work not just by the great photographic masters, but in many other fields as well.”
Al-Thani is a second cousin of Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the ruling Emir of Qatar. As chairman of Qatar’s National Council for Culture, Arts and Heritage (NCCAH), al-Thani has been buying art on behalf of the Emir for the past eight years, helping transform Qatar into a world-class cultural centre complete with five new museums. The 88-year-old Chinese-American architect IM Pei has been flattered out of retirement to design the capital’s Islamic Museum, now close to completion. Meanwhile, Santiago Calatrava, the renowned Spanish architect, has set to work on a photography museum. Central to the design are two feather-like wings that will open and close to according to the light, to protect the photographs.
“The great masters are artists, not photographers. They merit a museum in their own right,” said al-Thani in our interview at a London flat off Portman Square three years ago. A handsome, reticent man, al-Thani threaded cabochon ruby worry beads through his slender fingers as he explained why Qatar needs five museums: “Unlike Turkey or Egypt, we have no art-historical tradition. His Highness the Emir would like Qatar to become a cultivated country.”
The Emir can afford big dreams. A tiny country that juts off Saudi Arabia, Qatar now pumps 900,000 barrels of oil a day, and will soon become the world’s largest producer of liquid natural gas. While keeping a firm lid on political dissent, the Emir, who deposed his father in a bloodless coup in 1995, encourages cultural and educational projects. Four American universities, including Cornell Medical and Carnegie Mellon, have opened branches in the past two years and a fifth is expected soon.
Al-Thani has meanwhile collected feverishly across the board: Islamic art (his greatest passion), vintage photography, rare jewels, objets d’art, 18th-century French furniture, natural history books and specimens, vintage cars, textiles, Egyptian and Roman antiquities, Art Deco furniture – even sweeping up entire libraries in his wake. A $9.57 million (£5 million) Fabergé egg bought at Christie’s in New York in 2002, the Jenkins Venus – a £7·9 million Roman marble statue from Newby Hall in Yorkshire – along with a complete set of Audubon’s Birds of America for $8·8 million (£4·6 million) are just a few examples. Armed with a “wish list”, the Sheikh made offers even when works of art were not available. “He treated both museums and old family collections like a shop,” observes one critic.
Stored in air-conditioned warehouses just outside Doha, the bulk of the treasure is destined for display in the new museums that will run along a corniche that circles the bay of Doha. While a small selection of Islamic pieces have already gone on display during the annual Doha Cultural Festival, al-Thani is also said to have bought for a lavish personal collection – the full extent of which is a source of much speculation.
Some have been troubled by the Sheikh’s willingness to pay vast prices at auction for certain objects (he forked out £94,850 at Christie’s last year for an Iranian pottery tile estimated at only £1,000-£1,500). One high-end Islamic dealer delicately suggested to him that it would be a better bet to buy privately before the sale. Unused to criticism, al-Thani turned on his heels.
Although seldom spotted at sales – he would send an agent or bid over the telephone – al-Thani likes being photographed. The late Richard Avedon, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Helmut Newton, Irving Penn and his friend David Bailey have all been pressed into service. Avedon’s portrait shows him wearing traditional Arab dress with a rare gazelle, a paw resting on his shoulder (al-Thani breeds endangered wildlife, particularly birds and gazelles, at Al Wabra, his desert estate), while Newton asked for (and got) $70,000 a day for a three-day sitting. Al-Thani subsequently asked Newton if he would mind meeting his sister. He was a little put out when the photographer invoiced him for an additional €18 to cover the drinks.
“My family thinks I am crazy,” al-Thani said in an interview with The Art Newspaper following the Maastricht fair last March. Perhaps the Emir and his clan disapproved of the vast sums he forked out at auctions. Perhaps it was his seemingly boundless personal extravagance. Bailey recalls accompanying al-Thani on a spur of the moment trip to the Philippines in his Gulfstream jet to visit a parrot breeder (the men share an unlikely passion for the birds), while on another occasion they flew off to visit IM Pei’s museum in Kyoto, Japan’s cultural centre. The al-Thani family may also have been upset at Sheikh Saud’s purchase of the Jenkins Venus – a sensuous female nude.
“Al-Thani has a wonderful eye, and a stunning visual memory. But if he wants something, he’ll just buy it – regardless of price,” says his friend Bailey. According to The Art Newspaper, Qatari officials are now looking at three 2002 invoices from Oliver Hoare Limited for Mughal jewellery bought by al-Thani totalling £19·2 million. The jewellery was originally bought at auction for less than a tenth of the price. Hoare has said that he was not the original puchaser, and it is not unusual for rare objects to increase in value: dealers can quite legally charge the best price they can get. But, as The Art Newspaper says, these mark-ups appear to be unprecedentedly high. Friends say Hoare has done nothing wrong and that elements hostile to al-Thani are feeding information damaging to him to the press.
Some speak of “palace coup” by envious rivals. Yet the Emir of Qatar remains a conservative man for whom many areas of public -and private life are closed to scrutiny or debate. One businessman and collector from the region argues that the Emir would never allow a member of the royal family to be so publicly disgraced unless he thought he had good reason.
Whatever the case, Bailey last saw him at a dinner with their wives (al-Thani is married with three children) in New York in late February.
“At that point, rumours of a scandal were already swirling,” Bailey recalls. Within a couple of days, the photographer discovered that al-Thani’s telephone lines and mobile had been cut off. Auction houses, art dealers and experts meanwhile received a letter dated February 16 stripping al-Thani of his powers as chairman of the NCCAH, adding that Dr Mohammed Abdulraheem Kafoud – a former education minister – has stepped into his shoes. While Qatari officials claim that plans for the five museums will move ahead, the Qatari Audit Bureau is now investigating allegations of a “serious misuse and misappropriation of funds”.
Back in London, it is in the saleroom that al-Thani has had the greatest impact – both in photography and in the Islamic field, where his countless acquisitions now rival Sheikh Nasser al-Sabah’s collection of more than 20,000 objects on display in the National Museum in Kuwait City.
“I admire Sheikh Saud’s passion, but I’m very much aware of the potentially destabilising force when a collector arrives on the art market with seemingly unlimited resources,” says Philippe Garner. “It can lead to unrealistic expectations on the part of vendors.”
Al-Thani is as colourful and exotic as one of his rare birds. His disappearance had an immediate impact on the Islamic sales of the big London auction houses this week. Christie’s reached £3·2 million compared with £11·1 million last April; Sotheby’s £2·1 million, down from 2004′s £7·3 million.
“He was one of the most fascinating men I’ve ever met,” adds David Bailey.
“I miss him.”
But now he is back on the market and he certainly can afford what he wants, seen the results of his company.
Qtel H1 Profits rise by 9%
On 08.16.10, In Mobile, By Editor
Revenues for the Qtel Group for the first half increased by 13.7% to US$3.6 billion, compared to US$ 3.1 billion the last year. The profits stood at US$0.494 million from US$0.439 million a year ago. The Group’s consolidated customer base stood at 66.6 million, compared to 51.4 million a year ago.
Qtel’s EBITDA performance was strong -US$ 1.730 billion, up 14.6 % resulting in an EBITDA margin of 48% and a progress of 2 % from last year.
According to the Chairman of the company, Sheikh Abdullah Bin Mohammed Bin Saud Al-Thani, Qtel has verified that the company can turn challenging investments and market situations to their advantage, as they continue to deliver shareholder value. The performance in core territories such as Kuwait and Qatar shows that the company is capable of driving progress in competitive markets. The performance in Indonesia also continues to improve, as they unlock the potential of this key investment in Southeast Asia.