May 2005, ARTnews

The Sheikh Who Stopped Shopping

Sheikh Saud al-Thani's ouster sent shock waves through the art market and raised questions about his multi-million dollar projects

The ouster from public office of the world’s most active art collector throws into doubt his efforts to create a constellation of new museums in the wealthy Gulf state of Qatar. Sheikh Saud bin Mohammed al-Thani was dismissed in February as chairman of the Qatari National Council for Culture, Arts and Heritage, a move that sent shock waves through auction houses and galleries accustomed to his extravagant patronage.

The sheikh has spent hundreds of millions of dollars on art in the past few years, with estimates of his total outlay ranging as high as $1.5 billion. “When a great work of art comes up for sale, it’s never too expensive,” he has said. The first cousin of Qatar’s ruling emir, Sheikh Saud has become a fixture at Sotheby’s, Christie’s and the Maastricht Art Fair, buying up artworks by the warehouse full as part of his bid to turn Doha, the capital of Qatar, into a cultural and educational hub.

The National Council said the sheikh had resigned. But art dealers and curators who have worked with him said the 38-year-old — who bought for his private collection as well as state museums — had been ousted in an apparent disagreement within Qatari ruling circles over the sheikh’s spending. Shortly afterwards, Qatari newspapers reported that the country’s Audit Bureau was investigating alleged misuse of public funds by the National Council. The Al Sharq newspaper said one official was under preventive detention and two others involved were out of the country.

A London art specialist involved in sales to the sheikh told ARTnews that Qatari authorities had recently requested documentation relating to his purchases. The sheikh could not be reached for comment, but a former aide told ARTnews that the collector was not under arrest. Neither council officials nor the Audit Bureau would respond to queries.

It was unclear whether the new council chairman, former education minister Mohammed Kafud, would continue Sheikh Saud’s museum plans. Art market figures said it was equally uncertain to what degree the sheikh would remain a presence in the market. “He is by nature a very driven collector and I’d be very surprised if that stops,” said William Robinson, head of the Islamic department at Christie’s in London.

“He single handedly inflated the market,” said Dr. Massumeh Farhad, curator of Islamic Art at the Freer and Sackler Galleries of Art in Washington, D.C. “If I were the government I would want to make sure those were fair prices.” While focusing his purchases at Islamic art auctions in London, the sheikh also bought up daguerreotypes, textiles, Roman antiquities, vintage cars, art deco furniture, entire libraries, fossils, precious stones and antique bicycles. To accomplish his goals, he surrounded himself with expert advisors, including curators from Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Musee d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris who moved to Doha.

The sheikh had planned to have Doha’s palm-lined corniche redesigned by the French architect Jean Nouvel, and he wanted five major museums built along the bayside roadway. I.M. Pei’s Museum of Islamic Art is already under construction, and the architect’s New York office said it was still due to be complete in late 2006. Oliver Watson, chief curator at the Islamic Museum until the sheikh’s removal, has resigned that post and will take up a job as Keeper of Eastern Art at the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford University, the Ashmolean said. Watson declined comment when reached by telephone. The National Council’s website states that Japanese architect Arata Isozaki’s futuristic new Qatar National Library is also being built, but it is unknown what will happen to other projects including a National History Museum by Isozaki and Santiago Calatrava’s proposed a soaring Museum of Photography.

An avid buyer of photographs and cameras alike, the sheikh has had his portrait taken by leading photographers including Richard Avedon, Helmut Newton, Annie Liebowitz and Irving Penn. He has also bought pictures by Sally Mann, whose photographs of her own unclad children have sparked controversy in the United States. The sheikh’s wide-ranging tastes are indeed iconoclastic. In an unusual step for the Islamic world, he hired an Israeli-born designer, Ron Arad, to work on interiors for his planned private villa on a desert site outside Doha.

The villa was to have been an oasis of Western contemporary art. Ground-breaking was expected last December, but in a sign that the sheikh was headed for trouble, architects involved were notified in late 2004 that the vast project had been aborted. A 30-foot high aluminum sculpture designed by Philip Johnson before his death last January was built for the site, but now sits in Rhode Island awaiting shipping instructions. The abstract, tent-like form was intended as an outdoor tearoom in the villa gardens. For the main reception room, Arad drew up a chamber out of science fiction with an undulating floor that can be reconfigured via remote control so as to alter the room’s size and atmosphere. Shortly before the project ground to a halt, Arad termed it without bounds — “not of budget, culture, or planning — so a great opportunity to implement new ideas.”

A host of other stellar figures were also involved, including David Hockney, Richard Serra and John Pawson. Zaha Hadid had designed a private mosque for the villa. Jean Nouvel was responsible for a separate guesthouse, and Calatrava drew up a private library. The American landscape architect Martha Schwartz made plans for the villa gardens, but her services were terminated late last year when she was told by aides to the sheikh that the intended site was no longer available.

Temperatures in Doha can range up to 130 degrees, yet according to Schwartz, the sheikh was set on deploying a mammoth flower-bedecked Jeff Koons “Puppy” sculpture outside the villa. She met her client several times in Doha, London, Monaco and New York. Describing these encounters, she said, “It’s like traveling with Elvis. There are always a group of men who surround the sheikh. Exactly what everybody does I don’t know. There are people who oversee his calendar and some who see that he gets from place A to B — The people like me are like butterflies around him.”

When visiting some of the sheikh’s storage depots, Schwartz was bug-eyed. “You go into a warehouse,” she recalled, “and you will find the bones of a triceratops next to a stack of rare books, next to Egyptian antiquities, next to an Anish Kapoor, next to bicycles.” The fate of this colossal collection remains unknown in light of the sheikh’s removal from office, as does whether he will be remembered as a Middle Eastern Medici or another deep-pocketed shopaholic.