Revealed: Royal family of Qatar is buyer of world’s most expensive Hirst

The ruling Al-Thanis bought the artist’s Lullaby Spring at Sotheby’s last year for £9.7m and are also believed to have purchased the Rockefeller Rothko for $72.8m


Qatar’s ruling Al-Thani family bought Damien Hirst’s Lullaby Spring for £9.7m at Sotheby’s London in June 2007, the highest price ever paid for a work by a living European artist at auction. The 2002 sculpture, which consists of painted and cast pills displayed in a steel and glass cabinet, is now installed in Doha amid a growing collection of modern and contemporary art. While the Al-Thani family has been a major collector of Islamic art, it has not previously been known to buy European and American work at this level.

The Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, and his wife, Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al-Missned, are also believed to be the buyers of the so-called Rockefeller Rothko which sold at Sotheby’s New York last May for $72.8m—setting a new auction record for a post-war work of art.

A highly placed source in Qatar says the Hirst sculpture is in Doha and forms part of a growing collection of Western works characterised by bright, abstract pieces. The Hirst purchase has been independently confirmed by The Art Newspaper. The same source says the Rockefeller Rothko is also in the Al-Thani collection. This was not independently confirmed.

The entry of the Al-Thanis into the modern and contemporary market is part of a global movement of high-end works of art from West to East as American and European collectors—encouraged by the resilience of the top end of the market in the face of uncertainty in the financial sectors—consign works to auction which are increasingly going to new collectors in the Gulf region, the ex-Soviet republics and China.

A spokesman for Sotheby’s, Matthew Weigman, says: “Five years ago buyers who spent more than $500,000 at our auctions came from 36 countries. Last year they came from 58.”

Another factor is the construction in Abu Dhabi of an outpost of the Guggenheim—scheduled to open in 2012 and which Zaki Nusseibeh, culture advisor to the Emirate, says has a “potentially unlimited” budget for acquisitions. A branch of the Louvre is also under construction in the city.

As part of an investigation into record auction prices for living artists, we also reveal in this issue that Jeff Koons’s Hanging Heart (Magenta/ Gold), 1994-2006, which currently holds the record for the most expensive work by a living artist to sell at auction, was purchased for $23.6m by Ukrainian collector Victor Pinchuk. It was sold by New York collector Adam Lindemann. The Peter Doig painting, White Canoe, 1990-91, sold by British collector Charles Saatchi in February 2007, went to Georgian mining magnate, Boris Ivanishvili.