How François Pinault beat Sheikh Saud to a Jeff Koons flower sculpture

The Emir of Qatar, the Sheikh’s cousin, was also keen on acquiring the work



Sheikh Saud Al Thani of Qatar, once the world’s biggest art collector, was in negotiations with a Parisian dealer to buy Split Rocker a flower sculpture by Jeff Koons, but was beaten to it by the French luxury goods magnate, François Pinault.

The 40-foot-high work was first unveiled in an exhibition at the Papal palace at Avignon in southern France in 2000.

The Sheikh, who is believed to remain under house arrest in Qatar following an investigation into misappropriations of public funds, as revealed in a series of articles in The Art Newspaper, wanted to buy the sculpture, which shows the head of a child’s rocking toy, half pony, half dinosaur. It is a unique piece constructed with live flowers which grow out of soil at the work’s core. There is only one artist’s proof.

Sheikh Saud contacted Jeff Koons’s French dealer, Jérôme de Noirmont. The Sheikh was then chairman of Qatar’s National Council for Culture, Art and Heritage (NCCAH) and was responsible for buying art to fill five museums planned for the capital Doha. His acquisitions for the national collection ranged from Islamic art to photography, but were not generally in the field of contemporary art. However the Sheikh did buy contemporary art for his own collection including a work by Bridget Riley and a series of watercolours by David Hockney. He also asked the British artist to design the swimming pool for a futuristic new home that was being designed for him by the Japanese architect Arata Isozaki.

The Sheikh invited Jeff Koons and his French dealer to Qatar. “We met Sheikh Saud and [his cousin] the Emir,” Mr de Noirmont told The Art Newspaper. “We were taken to the Sheikh’s palace in Doha and to his family estate Al Wabra. He and the Emir were very interested in the Koons project. We had some worries because of the dry desert air and the heat, and how the flowers could survive in Qatar. There was talk of building a giant capsule to house it. This didn’t seem to be a problem. We were very well received, and the Emir was very happy to meet Jeff Koons”.

However, back in Paris, the French billionaire François Pinault, was also interested in the piece. Mr Pinault is one of the biggest contemporary art collectors in the world. In April he unveiled part of his collection in a public exhibition at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice in which he bought an 80% stake last year.

“Mr Pinault was quicker off the mark, and I sold him the Koons,” says Mr de Noirmont. When he was still collecting, Sheikh Saud was known for often reserving works of art from galleries and then taking an exceptionally long time to finalise his purchases.

“After Sheikh Saud was sacked [from the NCCAH] I never heard from him again, but the Emir is still interested in contemporary art. He recently came to visit my gallery in Paris,” says Mr de Noirmont. “But he didn’t buy anything.