Qatar, a small Persian Gulf country, is competing with the wealthiest moguls, institutions, and corporations to purchase masterworks by famous painters so it can appear to have an artistic cultural background.
Through secret representatives, the Qatari royal family spent unprecedented sums of money for Mark Rothko’s "White Center," which sold for $72.84 million in 2007 (setting the world record for the most costly post-war work of art sold at auction) a Damien Hirst pill cabinet for $20 million (2007), $250 million for Cèzanne’s "Card Players," and much more.
Not only is Qatar buying what they consider to be high-end masterworks, they are purchasing prestige and immediate cultural status; and reportedly it purchased over $1 billion a year on art purchases, outspending the Louvre, MoMA, The Tate Museum, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art — and everyone else in the art world.
Abu Dhabi and Dubai have similar goals.
Each wants to be a cultural capital to which tourists flock, and while Qatar is building its own reputation by acquiring top pieces, sponsoring film festivals, and promoting Damien Hirst in special projects. Abu Dhabi and Dubai have joined ranks with the Louvre and the Guggenheim to establish art world credibility.
They boast of having the world’s only seven-star hotels, its tallest building, the most lavish cars, tax free business centers and ports, 160 mph Jetpacks, and more.
For the last 20 years, their modern day gold rush has turned isolated deserts into luxurious playgrounds for the rich and famous, with Palm Island (a manmade group of exclusive waterfront islands) as its status symbol.
And while all that is happening, they’re replicating some of the world’s finest sites in 107 square miles of theme parks. The most wealthy citizens carry diamond encrusted cell phones, eat the best foods, wear the most expensive designer clothing, and allow corruption and censorship to reign — as hedonistic values coincide with so-called Muslim values.
Patricia G. Hambrecht of Phillips auction house stated in The New York Times that Qatar’s buyers are “the most important . . . of art in the market today . . . The amount of money being spent is mind-boggling.”
The 30-year old chairwoman of the Qatar Museums Authority, Sheika al Mayassa, who is a sister to Qatar’s new emir, is an extremely influential player in the current art world, because she spends lavishly.
With approximately $1 billion budgeted a year, Qatar has quietly purchased works by Francis Bacon, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, and Jeff Koons.
Because of its tremendous buying power, its purchases have escalated prices worldwide for modernist and contemporary masters.
Qatar’s spending habits have stimulated private and corporate buyers to follow its lead and that is why the abstract modernist contemporary market has dramatically skyrocketed, but if Qatar were to stop buying, it would leave a tremendous void in the marketplace.
There are only a handful of people who can match or afford their buying sprees.
In order to impress other nations and to enhance Qatar’s growing reputation for the World Cup in 2022, Qatar is feverishly collecting and building. It has three museums in its capital: the National Museum of Qatar (under construction); the Museum of Islamic Art; and Mathaf, an Arab Museum of Modern Art, which is focused on regional art and artists.
The ambitious Sheika al Mayassa plans to build twenty museums or more, which is exceedingly ambitious.
Sheika al Mayassa mixes Western and Muslim influences and wants the West to better understand Muslims. Although the multi-bilingual Sheika has no formal art background, she and her husband did postgraduate work at Columbia University in New York City and continuously study collections at American museums.
The Economist magazine recently named Sheika “the world’s most powerful woman,” for attempting to amass the best of the best art, regardless of price.
While she claims her country’s art purchases are a way to assert Qatar’s identity on the world stage, Lebanese artist Ninar Esber told The New York Times in 2012 that Qatar’s art museums make for an “empty golden shell” that “glitters from the outside, but from the inside, it is empty” of meaning.
This common criticism seems appropriate for a country that does not believe in freedom of speech and uses slave labor to complete many of its projects.
A majority of Qatari artists complain about their country’s many injustices and believe its collecting and buying habits are hypocritical.
The lack of free expression stifles artistic innovation.
Most people — even the press — don’t dare criticize or speak negatively about the Qatari royal family and its multi-billion dollar projects because they fear cruel retaliation or deportation.
But the truth is: Qatar does not allow drugs, alcohol, nudity, swearing, or public kissing.
No one is supposed to chew gum or come out of the closet and confess they are homosexual; and no one is allowed to use his or her left hand when serving food, yet prostitution and sex trafficking run rampant because there’s money to made in those fields.
Qatar, Dubai, and Abu Dhabi currently are enduring a credit crunch because foreign investors, whom they’ve counted on to pay for their over-the-top life styles, are spending less, due to China’s economic instability and the lowering of oil prices.
If the situations worsen, those who are used to buying $3,000 bottles of champagne or spending $20,000 a night for the best hotels, might become more conservative, or go bankrupt, and maybe the art world will once again become a “normal” playing field for more than the top 1 percent.
Patricia Jobe Pierce is a freelance writer, art historian, art dealer-consultant, certified AAA appraiser, public speaker, photographer and American art authenticator for museums, auction houses and collectors. She graduated from Boston University with a BFA in 1965, is owner and director of Pierce Galleries, Inc. in Nantucket and Hingham, Mass., and is author of many works, including, "Art Collecting & Investing: The Inner Workings and the Underbelly of the Art World." For more of her submissions, Click Here Now.
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