Does Qatar’s $300 Million Paul Gauguin Acquisition Hide A Dark Secret?

The truth behind the art-collecting powerhouse.

Qatar has been an art-collecting powerhouse for some years now, but as of yesterday the oil-rich country is reportedly responsible for the two most expensive art sales of all time. With the new record price, thought to be close to $300 million, shelled out for Paul Gauguin‘s oil painting Nafea Faa Ipoipo (When Will You Marry?) (1892), artnet News is taking a closer look at the country’s art-buying habits, and they don’t exactly add up (see What Are The Top 10 Al-Thani Family Art Acquisitions?).

Chief among Qatar’s purchases, of course, is Paul Cézanne‘s The Card Players, which until this week held the distinction of being the world’s most expensive work of art. Another canvas by the French post-Impressionist also entered the exclusive $100-plus club in late 2013. The $102 million sale, from Detroit’s Edsel & Eleanor Ford House, was kept secret due to avoid adding to pressure on the Detroit Institute of Arts to sell its collection to satisfy the city’s creditors (see Secret $100 Million Cézanne Sale in Detroit). Even when details leaked the following December, the buyer was not officially revealed, and Qatar’s involvement remains a rumor.

Nafea Faa Ipoipo was sold by retired Sotheby’s executive Rudolf Staechelin, who lives in Basel, Switzerland. When asked by the New York Times if the Qatar Museums were behind the purchase, he would not say, responding only, “I don’t deny it and I don’t confirm it.”

The $300 million Paul Gauguin acquisition, intriguingly, comes on the heels of a bit of a down year for Qatar, in which former Christie’s CEO Edward Dolman stepped down from his role heading the Qatar Museums (see Edward Dolman Takes the Helm at Phillips), and Sheikh Saud bin Mohammed Al-Thani, cousin of the reigning emir and a preeminent art collector, died unexpectedly due to heart disease (see World’s Biggest Art Collector Sheikh Saud bin Mohammed Al-Thani Dies at Age 48 and Qatar’s Sheikh Saud Died of Complications Related to Heart Condition). The sheikh had allegedly defaulted on a number of major purchases, leading to a Sotheby’s auction of his Patek Philippe watch immediately after his death (see Sheikh Al-Thani’s Watch Sells for $24 Million After His Mysterious Death). His family also still owes money for a collection of rare stamps (see Sheikh Saud Left $7.5 Million Rare Stamp Debt to Qatar’s Ruling Family).

Despite years of showering money on public art initiatives (see Richard Serra’s New Work in the Qatari Desert Launches Ecotourism Initiative and Slew of Public Art Coming to Qatar’s New Airport, Hamad International), Qatar has done little to support smaller independent organizations such as Doha’s Katara Art Center, which was forced to close at the end of June (see Is Qatar’s $1 Billion Arts Spending Not Enough?). Later that month, rumors surfaced that the country’s arts funding would be slashed (see Layoffs Loom as Qatar Cuts Back on Art Funding).

Meanwhile, back in the US, Qatar backed off on what would have been New York’s most expensive commercial real estate deal for a townhouse. In January of 2014, the government of Qatar agreed to spend $90 million on the Upper East Side building that formerly housed Wildenstein & Co, but pulled out prior to the June closing. Last month Wildenstein took the country to court, claiming that Qatar had reneged on the sale due to “a reluctance to be seen as profligate.” The country has been criticized by human rights organizations for allegedly inhumane construction site conditions as the country prepares for the 2022 World Cup. No wonder Staechelin is shy about identifing Qatar as his buyer.

Though this week’s $300 million purchase would seem to indicate that the country’s resources are as unlimited as ever, and that Qatar’s voracious appetite for art continues unsatiated, a closer look suggests there must be more to the story. Can Qatar’s record-setting art spending spree continue unabated? Only time will tell.

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