The prices have been record-breaking, and startling.
More than $70-million for Rothko’s White Center in 2007, a high-water mark for that artist.
More than $20-million later that year for a Damien Hirst pill cabinet, then a record for a living artist.
And $250 million for Cézanne’s Card Players in 2011, the highest known price ever paid for a painting.
Given the secrecy of the art market, few knew at the time who had laid out such unprecedented sums.
But it has become increasingly clear that those masterpieces and many more have been purchased by Qatar, a tiny Persian Gulf country with enormous wealth and cultural ambitions to match.
“They’re the most important buyers of art in the market today,” said Patricia G. Hambrecht, the chief business development officer for Phillips auction house. “The amount of money being spent is mind-boggling.”
The purchasing is directed through intermediaries by Sheika Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, chairwoman of the Qatar Museums Authority and a sister to Qatar’s new emir.
No one knows exactly how much Sheika Al Mayassa has spent on behalf of her family or the museum authority since she was named chairwoman by her father, the former emir, in 2006. But experts estimate the acquisition budget reaches $1-billion a year and say the Qataris have used it to secure a raft of undisputed modern and contemporary masterpieces by Francis Bacon, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons.
In recent years the Qatar Museums Authority has created three high-profile museums in the capital, Doha, by architects Jean Nouvel, I.M. Pei and Jean-François Bodin. But each of these projects is focused on regional art and artists. So experts expect that a good portion of the Western collection being amassed will become part of a new contemporary art institution, although officials have yet to announce that.
The annual acquisition budgets of major museums typically amount to just a small fraction of what Qatar is spending. The Museum of Modern Art in New York, for example, spent $32-million to acquire art for the year ending in June. 2012.
Sheika Al Mayassa declined to be interviewed for this article, but she has made limited remarks about the role art will play in Qatar’s future.
“We are revising ourselves through our cultural institutions and cultural development,” she said in a 2010 TED Talk. “Art becomes a very important part of our national identity.”
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