One of the most talked about stories on the London Antiques market finally broke cover over the weekend into the British broadsheet newspapers. Arguably the most-prolific and internationally-acclaimed collectors of Objets d’Art, Rare Books and Islamic Antiques the world has ever seen, Sheikh Saud Bin Mohammed al-Thani, a member of the Qatari ruling family, has now been served with a writ from a London High Court freezing his assets until vast debts owed to various auction houses are settled.
At the centre of the legal battle are three coin dealers who claim the Sheikh has failed to pay for almost $20 million worth of rare Classical coins – the Prospero Collection – sold in New York on 4th January 2012. It is claimed that he also owes approximately $42 million to Sotheby’s and a further $7 million to Bonham’s.
For those not familiar with the Sheikh’s influence on this market and the works he has amassed ostensibly for the various museums being built in Doha, Qatar, he is rumoured to have spent almost $2 billion in the decade up to 2005. Along the way he has acquired some magnificent art works including amongst others: the Clive of India flask at $5million, a rare complete set of Audubon’s Birds of America at $7million, the Roman marble statue known as the Jenkins Venus at $15 million, a Fabergé egg at $8 million, and an important collection of Man Ray photographs at $16.5 million.
But the current case may be not all that it seems. Whilst very little defence has so far been offered by his attorney, there may be other reasons at play to explain why one of the richest men on the planet has failed to settle his auction purchases. Jeffrey Gruder QC, prosecuting attorney for the three claimants A.H. Baldwin & Sons Ltd., Dmitry Markov and N&M Numismatics LLC, claims the Sheikh is nothing more than a ‘serial defaulter’ and an ‘inveterate gambler’ who ‘in a perverse way enjoys the process of bidding’. But whilst the Sheikh seems happy to make every effort to settle his debts with Sotheby’s by reportedly having placed up to $82 million of items with them as surety, he seems a little less interested in settling the outstanding $20million to the three claimants in this case.
Al-Thani’s attorney Stephen Rubin has attacked the case on the basis that the three dealers cannot enforce a contract of sale with his client as they were acting on behalf of an undisclosed third party consignor, and had merely ‘organised’ the sale. Rumours have abounded in the market for months suggesting that the Sheikh has withheld payment because of suspicions that the auction in which he bought the coins may have been rigged and prices pushed up fraudulently knowing the Sheikh would continue to bid anyway. A.H. Baldwin & Sons is not just a leading private dealer in the field but also a long-standing auctioneer of such items – a clear conflict of roles that may well have surfaced in this case.
Mr. Rubin’s claims may only be disproved once the real owner of the Prospero Collection steps forward as the Sheikh’s debtor. One version of events wonders whether the real owner may have already come forward. If so, then the claimants in this case may be exposed to a counter-action alleging that they attempted to sell their own goods, in their own public auction, thereby achieving incredibly inflated prices. It would be very interesting to see their under-bidders cross-examined in the witness box – assuming they exist of course.
Mr Justice Haddon-Cave will issue his judgement at a later date.