Earlier this month, members of Congress were recruiting the signatures of colleagues for a letter addressed to Qatar’s ambassador to the United States to address “serious allegations” about the Persian Gulf state’s close ties with the terror group Hamas, to which it pledged $400 million last year.
While Qatar provides crucial space for U.S. forces at the al-Udeid Airbase, it also invested massive amounts of money in cultivating its ties with then Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, to which it gave $8 billion in aid over the past two years.
The Financial Times in May wrote that Qatar is estimated “by rebel and diplomatic sources” to have contributed about $1 billion to Islamist rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad, though “people close to the Qatar government” put the number closer to $3 billion.
In light of Qatar’s nurturing Islamist movements around the Middle East, it comes as some surprise that its leadership is also keenly focused on amassing a pricey modern art collection.
The New York Times reports that the enormously wealthy country “is buying art at a level never seen before” and is spending an estimated $1 billion a year to satisfy this growing appetite for fine art.
“They’re the most important buyers of art in the market today,” Patricia G. Hambrecht, the chief business development officer for Phillips auction house tells the New York Times. “The amount of money being spent is mind-boggling.”
The acquisition budgets of major American museums pale in comparison with Qatar’s annual budget. New York’s Museum of Modern Art “spent $32 million to acquire art for the fiscal year that ended in June 2012; [and] the Metropolitan Museum of Art, $39 million,” the New York Times reports.
Despite the secrecy surrounding art auctions, the Times reveals some of the amounts Qatar spent on art masterpieces, including more than $70 million for Rothko’s “White Center” acquired in 2007 (way above the $40 million estimated); more than $20 million for a Damien Hirst pill cabinet, “then a record for a living artist”; $250 million for Cézanne’s “Card Players” in 2011, “the highest known price ever paid for a painting.”
Qatar’s largesse also seems to be significantly driving up art prices. The Times reports, “Until Qatar’s 2007 purchase, for example, the most expensive Rothko ever sold at auction (‘Homage to Matisse’) had drawn $22 million in 2005, less than one-third of the price Qatar paid. In 2011 the $250 million spent for ‘Card Players’ was four times the highest public price ever paid for a work by that artist.”
The New York Times reports:
The purchasing is directed through intermediaries by Sheika al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, chairwoman of the Qatar Museums Authority and a sister to Qatar’s new emir. At age 30 she has become one of the most influential players in the art world.
No one knows exactly how much Sheika al Mayassa has spent on behalf of her family or the museum authority since she was named chairwoman by her father, the former emir, in 2006. But experts estimate the acquisition budget reaches $1 billion a year and say the Qataris have used it to secure a host of undisputed modern and contemporary masterpieces by Francis Bacon, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons.
In 2011, the Art Newspaper called Qatar “the world’s biggest buyer in the art market…and is behind most of the major modern and contemporary art deals over the past six years.” It reported that the Sheika’s art advisors were quietly building the collection through direct purchases from dealers and at auction. To aid the project, the Sheika hired former Christie’s chairman Edward Dolman as the executive director of the Qatar Museums Authority
The Sheika – who the Economist recently named “the art world’s most powerful woman” - would not give an interview to the New York Times, but in 2010 told the paper that setting up art museums might challenge Western preconceptions about Islam.
“My father often says, in order to have peace, we need to first respect each other’s cultures,” she told the paper. “And people in the West don’t understand the Middle East. They come with Bin Laden in their heads.”
The Qatar Museums Authority has established three high-profile museums in recent years designed by acclaimed architects Jean Nouvel, I. M. Pei and Jean-François Bodin.
Art watchers believe the goal is to make Qatar a destination hub for art aficionados.