The recent arrest of Sheikh Saud Al-Thani of Qatar appears to mark the end of a remarkable one-man, eight-year spending spree in the global art market.
According to Qatari newspapers, Al-Thani – feted by galleries and auction houses for his apparently bottomless pockets – is currently under house arrest while the Qatari Audit Bureau investigates a “serious misuse and misappropriation of public funds”.
He has been stripped of his position as chairman of the National Council of Culture, Arts and Heritage of the State of Qatar, while his London office, the Islamic Art Society, is now closed.
The late February arrest explains the conspicuous absence of the Sheik from the recent Maastricht fair where his entourage has traditionally received a private view.
Whether or not the charges relate to his role as the world’s biggest spender in the art market has not been made clear, but his absence from the salerooms will surely have substantial implications for the major auction houses.
Since the mid 1990s, Al-Thani has paid massive sums to secure both great – and not so great – works in diverse fields including Islamic art, photography, natural history books, Fabergé and classical antiquities. Famously, he purchased almost every lot in a Phillips sale of collectable bicycles some years ago. He has also been named as the buyer of many of the art market’s most recent treasures, including a jewel-encrusted Mughal jade flask from the Clive of India treasure at £2.6m, the £7.2m Jenkins Venus and a £6.2m early Renaissance Mantuan bronze roundel.
The impact of his spending on the global art market was underlined in 2003, when Qatar, a small oil-and-gas-rich Gulf state with a population of less than a million, featured high on the list of the non-EU importers of art and antiques from the UK.
In that year a net £33.4m worth of antiques were exported from the United Kingdom to Qatar – third only to the USA and Switzerland in exports to non-EU countries – and recent figures suggest a further escalation in that trend. Controversially, Al-Thani bid both for himself and (in his capacity as chairman of the National Council of Culture, Arts and Heritage of the State of Qatar) for five museums currently under construction in the capital Doha.