With this landmark score, the tiny, oil-rich nation joins a massively exclusive club: only five Card Players exist, and the other four are in world-class collections such as the Musée d’Orsay and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The purchase is just the latest bid in Qatar’s effort to become an international intellectual hub.
The tiny, oil-rich nation of Qatar has purchased a Paul Cézanne painting, The Card Players, for more than $250 million. The deal, in a single stroke, sets the highest price ever paid for a work of art and upends the modern art market.
If the price seems insane, it may well be, since it more than doubles the current auction record for a work of art. And this is no epic van Gogh landscape or Vermeer portrait, but an angular, moody representation of two Aix-en-Provence peasants in a card game. But, for its $250 million, Qatar gets more than a post-Impressionist masterpiece; it wins entry into an exclusive club. There are four other Cézanne Card Players in the series; and they are in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Musée d’Orsay, the Courtauld, and the Barnes Foundation. For a nation in the midst of building a museum empire, it’s instant cred.
Is the painting, created at the cusp of the 20th century, worth it? Well, Cézanne inspired Cubism and presaged abstract art, and Picasso called him “the father of us all.” That said, “$250 million is a fortune,” notes Victor Wiener, the fine-art appraiser called in by Lloyd’s of London when Steve Wynn put his elbow through a Picasso, in 2006. “But you take any art-history course, and a Card Players is likely in it. It’s a major, major image.” For months, he said, “its sale has been rumored. Now, everyone will use this price as a point of departure: it changes the whole art-market structure.”
The Cézanne sale actually took place in 2011, and details of the secret deal are now coming out as a slew of V.I.P. collectors, curators, and dealers head to Qatar for the opening next week of a Takashi Murakami blockbuster that was recently on view in the Palace of Versailles. The nation, located on its own small jetty off the Arabian Peninsula, is a new destination on the art-world grand tour: current exhibitions include an 80-foot-high Richard Serra and a Louise Bourgeois retrospective (her bronze spider is crawling across the Doha Convention Center), and in March it hosts a Global Art Forum that attracts artists, curators, and patrons from museum groups worldwide.
Land of the 1 Percent
Qatar (and its capital city, Doha) isn’t just a destination for those with private jets. It’s also a burgeoning intellectual and media hub. It hosts the headquarters of Al Jazeera, the Mideast campuses of Georgetown, Texas A&M, and Northwestern Universities—and of one the most ambitious sets of cultural goals since the robber barons and empire builders of America founded so many grand institutions a century ago.
Qatar does big things in a spectacular way. In 2008 when it opened the Museum of Islamic Art, a grand limestone behemoth by I. M. Pei, a flotilla of vintage ships sailed in V.I.P. guests representing the world’s great museums. Later, Robert De Niro floated up from the sea in a revolving open-air elevator to announce the Tribeca Film Festival was starting a Doha outpost.
In 2010, Qatar opened its Arab Museum of Modern Art, and the Qatar National Museum, currently closed for renovation by superstar architect Jean Nouvel, will reopen in 2014. That’s where the Cézanne could end up, flanked by some famous Rothkos, Warhols, and Hirsts that the Qataris have been snapping up in a buying spree.
The royal family of Qatar, does not comment on its purchases, however. And the tight circle of auction, houses, officials and dealers it is involved with, by and large, sign confidentiality agreements. But multiple sources confirm the record purchase of The Card Players.
How did Qatar get the Cézanne? For years, Greek shipping magnate George Embiricos had owned and treasured the painting, rarely lending it. He was “entertained” but unmoved, according to one art dealer, by occasional offers for it that climbed ever higher alongside the art market in past decades. A few years ago, the painting was listed by artnews magazine as one of the world’s top artworks still in private hands.
Shortly before his death in the winter of 2011, Embiricos began discussions about its sale, which was handled by his estate. Two art dealers—William Acquavella and another, rumored to be Larry Gagosian—offered upward of $220 million for the painting, people close to the matter said. But the royal family of Qatar, without quibbling on price, outbid them, at $250 million. (Disputes about the exact price turn on currency exchange rates, exactly when the painting changed hands—and whether the person talking has a pricey Cézanne in inventory. Estimates of what Qatar paid range as high as $300 million.)
Qatar’s appetite was all the stronger because, as the sale was going on, the Metropolitan Museum of Art was opening an entire exhibition devoted to the Card Players series—noticeably absent the elusive Embiricos one. Believed to be the final one the artist painted, circa 1895, it’s “the darkest, the most stripped down and essential,” said Gary Tinterow, curator of that Met show and, as of this week, the director of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
Members of the royal family of Qatar work through G.P.S., a New York-and-Paris-based triumvirate of dealers known for its discretion. Its principals include Lionel Pissarro, grandson of the painter Camille Pissarro, and dealer Philippe Segalot, who had handled many private transactions for luxury-goods billionaire François Pinault. Guy Bennett, former head of worldwide Impressionist and modern art at Christie’s, also played a hand in the record-setting deal, people close to the matter said. (Christie’s goes way back with the Embiricos family, who are a horsey set, as it hosts the annual Foxhunter Chase in Cheltenham, England.)
The most paid for a painting at auction is the $106 million, paid last year at Christie’s for a lush portrait of Picasso’s curvy mistress Marie-Thérèse. Privately, works by Picasso, Pollock, Klimt, and de Kooning have changed hands in the $125 million-to-$150 million range, traded to and from by Ronald Lauder, Wynn, David Geffen, and the like. But no price has come close to this one. And Qatar is also buying 20th-century art: The Art Newspaper, with has chronicled Qatar’s buying sprees with care and ferocity, earlier this year crowned the nation the biggest single contemporary-art buyer in the world.
The money is there: the United Arab Emirates region (which, loosely defined, includes Dubai, Bahrain, and Abu Dhabi) is home to nearly 10 percent of all the world’s oil reserve, nearly four million people, and, until recently, the planet’s largest-ever construction boom. Qatar’s neighbor (and rival) Abu Dhabi started, stopped, and now has started again ambitious plans to build outposts of the Louvre and the Guggenheim museums on its Saadiyat Island.
The region’s glamorous arts expansion takes place in the shadow of the Arab Spring, of course, but that hasn’t stopped the showmanship game. This is a play for fame, tourism, and immortality—and the buyers are well versed in Hollywood-style hype. The daughter of Qatar’s emir, 28-year-old Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, now heads the Qatar Museums Authority. But her first job was working as an intern in New York for the Tribeca Film Festival. (She once bragged, laughing, that her job was picking up breakfast pastries for Jane Rosenthal.) Next week, she’s hosting the opening of the Murakami exhibition.
Qatar became an art-world force roughly a decade ago, when Sheikh Saud Al-Thani, cultural minister and second cousin of the emir of Qatar, began an unprecedented global spending spree. That ended ignobly, with the sheikh’s arrest in 2005 for misuse of public funds (he has since been released). Now his cousin the emir Saud al Saud continues to buy.
Is the buying spree over? Not a chance. Qatar made another major acquisition last year, hiring Christie’s chairman Edward J. Dolman as executive director of the Museums Authority.