The vast and spectacular collections of Sheikh Saud al Thani of Qatar
In 1995, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani became Emir of Qatar, deposing his own father in a bloodless coup. The decision was taken to make Qatar a cultural centre which would rival anywhere in the world, and for this the Emir turned to his cousin, Sheikh Saud al Thani.

Saud al Thani began bidding at auction in the late 1990s and his impact was striking. He was most notable for buying Islamic, Roman and Egyptian art and antiques, but his range extended far beyond this, both for the state of Qatar and his own private collection.

He became more widely known in 2000, when he paid a jaw-dropping $15m for 136 vintage photographs including pieces by Alfred Steiglitz. In 2003 he paid £565,250 for a single black and white photograph, setting a world record.

Mogul flask
Mogul Indian jade flask, made with gold, diamonds and rubies
(bought for £2.91m)

The Sheikh also collected added fine jewellery, 18th century French furniture, classic cars, rare books and even antique bicycles to his wish list, and he always got what he wanted, usually bidding through a proxy or over the telephone.

Indeed, some found the Sheikh's willingness to pay whatever was necessary to gain an item alarming. In 2004 he paid just under £95,000 ($155,800 at today's prices) for an Iranian pottery tile listed at £1,000-£1,500.

Other notable purchases included a $9.57m Fabergé egg, a complete set of James John Audubon's Birds of America (the world's most expensive book) for $8.8m and a sensuous Roman marble statue known as the Jenkins Venus for £7.9m (nearly $13m).

Following the Sheikh's shopping spree across eight years ($2.5bn by some estimates) which made him the greatest buyer of art in the world, the Emir himself clearly had some questions to ask, and Saud al Thani went under house arrest in 2005 with questions about inflated invoices flying around.

Audubon's Birds of America
Illustrations from a copy of Audubon's Birds of America

The effect on the art markets was dramatic, with the combined sales of Islamic art and antiquities in the London branches of Christie's and Sotheby's dropping from £14.3m in early 2004 to £5.3m in early 2005.

Fortunately for these markets, the Sheikh has returned to the game since his 2005 misfortune. Indeed his purchases have expanded into Chinese art, which he had not shown significant interest in before.

In a Sotheby's sale of early Chinese gold and silver on May 14, 2008 in London the Sheikh bought 90% of the lots on offer, so he has clearly not become too timid.

Through his collecting, Qatar has filled five great museums and become one of the cultural centres of the world.


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