The New York Times has an odd little story on the Qatari National Museums Authority, Sheika al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani and the Gulf States nation’s ambitions to be cultural entrepot through its acquisition of a world class art collection. The story is odd only in the fact that all of this has been known for some time.
The interesting wrinkle in the story comes from dealer David Nash who asks this question about why the al-Thanis are so important to the market but also remain so invisible:
“They are very secretive about their purchases and activities in the art market and I am not quite sure why,” Mr. Nash said.
The answer came this morning conveniently from pundit David Frum, son of noted Canadian collector Murray Frum, who wasted no time demeaning the art collecting royals:
Frum’s snobbery is unwarranted. It isn’t news that the al-Thanis are major buyers of art. They’ve had a huge presence in the market for several years and their museum-building program is well-known and well covered in the press.
They’re savvy enough to know that sellers (and other buyers) will try to take advantage of their ambitions by either bidding up works they’re interested in buying or dealers raising prices with the knowledge that the buyer has deep pockets and high ambitions. A big buyer who is smart knows the first danger is that they become the market itself.
And that is probably one of the reasons they tried to buy Christie’s from Francois Pinault. Failing that, they’ve hired a number of former Christie’s executives to execute their art program.
The grand ambition to transmogrify energy profits into cultural capital may be a brilliant, bet-the-nation scheme. It may also be a pipe dream. Only time will tell whether Qatar or its neighbors can pull it off. But in the meantime, the al-Thanis have done a great deal to avoid the knee-jerk put-downs like Frum’s.
But Nash raises what may be an even better reason for discretion. The al-Thanis may be fore-sighted enough to recognize the potential for a major backlash once they begin tapering their purchases.
“When they finish their buying program and withdraw from the market,” said David Nash, a New York dealer who spent 35 years as a top executive with Sotheby’s, “they will leave a big hole which I don’t see anyone else ready to fill at their level.”
Qatari Riches Are Buying Art World Influence (New York Times)