World’s biggest art collector under arrest in Qatar

Sheikh Saud Al-Thani is being investigated for alleged misuse of public funds



The world’s biggest art collector, Sheikh Saud Al-Thani of Qatar, is under arrest while authorities investigate him for alleged misuse of public funds on the orders of his cousin, the ruling Emir of Qatar.

On 13 March we revealed on our website that Sheikh Saud was under house arrest in the Qatari capital Doha. The Art Newspaper understands that he has now been transferred to prison as the investigation into his spending continues. He was first detained at the end of February.

The investigation into Sheikh Saud’s spending appears to have started several months ago. The ongoing enquiry may be linked to his partial withdrawal from the art market over the last few months.

As Chairman of the National Council for Culture, Arts and Heritage (NCCAH), Sheikh Saud, 38, has been responsible for the purchase of art on behalf of the Emir for the last eight years. His acquisitions are intended to go on display in five museums currently under construction in Doha as part of an ambitious plan to transform the tiny Gulf State into a major cultural centre. During this period, Sheikh Saud has also purchased art for his own personal collection.

Qatar, with its vast reserves of oil and gas, is one of the richest countries in the Arab region. Consequently Sheikh Saud’s budget for the purchase of art has appeared to be almost limitless. He has been prepared to pay colossal sums for acquisitions in several fields, from Islamic art and Egyptian antiquities to Fabergé objects, photography, Art Deco furniture, natural history specimens and books, vintage cars, classical sculptures, and objets d’art, to name just a few.

The Sheikh’s willingness to spend disproportionate amounts of money for certain objects has astonished the art world. At a sale of Islamic art at Christie’s in London last April The Art Newspaper identified an agent working for Sheikh Saud as the buyer of a Mughal agate and garnet fly-whisk handle formerly belonging to Clive of India for £901,250, 113 times its high estimate of £8,000. At the same sale we also identified the Sheikh as the buyer of two unusual Safavid tiles, both with low estimates of only £1,000, for £31,070 and £94,850 respectively. Sheikh Saud also purchased numerous lots at Sotheby’s and Bonham’s in that week’s Islamic sales.

From an examination of the paddle numbers used at these sales, it appears that Sheikh Saud was bidding in one auction through several agents.

Last month, dealers in London and Paris who have sold art to Sheikh Saud received a fax, dated 16 February, from the NCCAH in Qatar. It states: “Sheikh Saud Mohammed Al-Thani is no longer the Chairman of the National Council for Culture, Arts and Heritage of the State of Qatar. Accordingly, he no longer has the authority to engage or make commitments on [its] behalf. The NCCAH will not be held responsible for any commitments made by Sheikh Saud Mohammed Al-Thani after this advice has been issued” (see right).

The statement is signed by the NCCAH’s new chairman, Dr Mohammed Abdulraheem Kafoud, a former education minister. The Art Newspaper was unable to reach Dr Kafoud for comment.

According to reports published in Qatari newspapers, the Qatari Audit Bureau is now investigating a “serious misuse and misappropriation of public funds.” The Arabic language Al Sharq reported that a “senior government body” has spent one billion Qatari Riyals ($275 million) on one of its activities. One official was reported as being under preventative detention and two other people believed to be involved were reported as being out of the country, the newspaper said. An article in the English language Gulf Times named this body as the NCCAH.

Speaking to The Art Newspaper on condition of anonymity, several dealers who have worked with the Sheikh said that the NCCAH had asked for copies of all invoices they had ever sent to Sheikh Saud. It is unclear whether this request is connected to the ongoing investigation.

While several curators working for the Sheikh in Qatar did not answer their telephones or reply to emails, Dr Oliver Watson, chief curator of the Museum of Islamic Art (MIA), told The Art Newspaper that “the building projects are going ahead as planned.” He would not comment on the removal of Sheikh Saud, however, he has resigned and will shortly become the new Keeper of Eastern Art at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

Competing with the UK

The Sheikh’s determination to purchase the very best objects for the new Qatari museums has, on occasions, set him on a collision course with Britain.

In June 2002, the Sheikh bought the so-called Jenkins Venus, a Roman marble statue from Newby Hall, Yorkshire, for £7,926,650 at Christie’s in London—the highest price ever paid at auction for any antiquity. The work had stood in the sculpture gallery at Newby Hall in a niche designed for it by the architect Robert Adam.

The British government deferred an export licence and “starred” the sculpture to emphasise its importance but no UK buyer was able to raise the recommended price and the statue was granted an export licence and duly taken to Qatar.

In April 2004, Sheikh Saud bought the Clive of India treasure, a jewelled Mughal jade flask studded with rubies and emeralds, for £3 million at a Christie’s sale. This had been on show at the V&A since 1963 until it was put up for auction by the Clive family.

Following the sale the British government once again deferred an export licence and the V&A launched a campaign to raise matching funds. The institution secured a £400,000 grant from the National Art Collections Fund and was preparing to submit an application to the Heritage Lottery Fund when the Sheikh informed the Export Reviewing Committee that he was withdrawing his request for an export licence. This means that the Sheikh would have had to keep the flask in one of his UK properties. Some of the Sheikh’s purchases may have upset members of his ruling Al-Thani family, particularly the Jenkins Venus, which is a sensual, female nude. “My family thinks I am mad [because of my art purchases],” Sheikh Saud admitted to The Art Newspaper during an exclusive interview last year at his family estate outside Doha.

As well as spending vast sums of money on art, Sheikh Saud has been the driving force behind the ambitious museum-building programme. It was the Sheikh who persuaded leading international architects such as Santiago Calatrava and Arata Isozaki to design museums in Qatar. He even managed to convince the retired Chinese- American architect I.M. Pei to embark on a final project, the Museum of Islamic Art.

“Sheikh Saud has the energy and resources to drive all these museum projects forward and I can’t see who else can replace him,” says one dealer who has sold work to Sheikh Saud.

One small indication that the new NCCAH team will continue the projects spearheaded by the Sheikh comes from the Louvre Museum in Paris. The institution has confirmed that an exhibition, scheduled for 2006, of 150 Islamic works to be sent on loan from the MIA collection in Qatar, will go ahead as planned. It will be seen in Paris both at the Louvre and the Guimet Museum.