Sheikh who spent a billion on art is sacked

A QATARI Sheikh who became one of the world’s biggest buyers of art has been removed as head of the country’s cultural council amid suggestions that he has paid excessive amounts for some works.

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By  Peter Conradi and Nick Fielding, The Sunday Times Published  March 20, 2005

A QATARI Sheikh who became one of the world’s biggest buyers of art has been removed as head of the country’s cultural council amid suggestions that he has paid excessive amounts for some works. Sheikh Saud Bin Mohamed Al Thani is believed to have spent more than US$1.9 billion on art in roughly three years. Among the pieces was a jade-hilted Mughal dagger bought for US$1.35 million — more than 10 times what it had been expected to fetch — and a 17th-century Mughal flask for US$5.5 million. Many of the works are believed to have been for Saud’s collection at Al Wabra, his estate outside Doha, the capital. However, most were bought on behalf of Qatar’s National Council for Culture, Arts and Heritage (NCCAH), which Saud headed, as part of a project to turn the country into a regional centre of culture. Several European museums recently received a letter announcing that Saud had been replaced as the council’s head by Mohamed Abdulraheem Kafoud, a former education minister. As of February 15, the Sheikh “no longer has authority to engage or make commitments” on behalf of the NCCAH. Days after his apparent dismissal, it was reported that Qatar’s Audit Bureau was investigating an alleged case of serious misuse and misappropriation of public funds at a government body, believed to be the NCCAH. One official was reported to be under preventive detention and another two alleged to have been involved were out of the country. There was no suggestion the Sheikh was implicated. A cousin of Emir Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani, Qatar’s ruler, Saud has enlivened Western art markets in recent years with his aggressive bidding of thousands of items. Although many of his purchases have been of Islamic art, he has also bought textiles, fossils, narwhal tusks, 18th-century French furniture, vintage cars and antique bicycles. In an interview last year with The Art Newspaper, Saud described his purchases as part of a plan by the emir to use some of his vast oil revenues to educate his people. “We are poor in history,” he said. “We don’t have our own Islamic pieces like Egypt or Turkey, so we collect Islamic art. For the government, the target is to improve culture. Step by step, we want to become a very cultivated city.” Qatari authorities, traditionally secretive, have given no reason for Saud’s departure. He has not made any comment. Sources in Qatar said rumours had been rife since late last year of tensions between him and the Emir. These are believed to have centred on the high prices Saud paid for some pieces, often apparently against the advice of his team of western experts. The Emir is also said to have been concerned about a lack of clarity about when Saud was purchasing works for himself and when he was buying for museums planned for Doha. Among those from whom he bought a number of pieces was Robin Symes, a British antiquities dealer jailed for two years in January for contempt of court. Symes had been given a 12-month suspended sentence in 2003 for lying about the true value of a statue he had sold to Saud for US$4.5 million. There was no suggestion the sheikh was guilty of any wrongdoing. Whatever the reason, Saud’s departure will be keenly felt by dealers, many of whom were gathered this weekend at the Maastricht Art Fair. One said: “If [the Sheikh] withdraws it ... will have a big impact — the antiquities market is not that big and he was a huge player.”

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