Issue #86  3/19/2005
Collector Sheik Al-Thani Reportedly Put Under House Arrest in Qatar

The Art Newspaper has reported this past week that collector-extraordinaire Sheik Saud Al-Thani of Qatar has been placed under house arrest and is under investigation for alleged misuse of public funds. He was apparently detained at the end of February in the Qatari capital Doha.

Sheik Al-Thani holds the distinction of setting the record for the highest priced photograph at public auction--not once, but several times. The last and still record price of £565,250, or $922,488 if you use Christie's too low exchange rate, or over $932,000 if you use my more accurate rate, was bid on an iconic full-plate daguerreotype by Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey of the Temple of Jupiter in Athens. He also purchased, what was at the time, the most expensive single photography collection to have been sold privately--the Bockelberg collection for a reported $12-15 million. This on top of being the major buyer at the first Jammes and Craven auctions.

Photography was a personal passion of Al-Thani's, and it may have been his undoing, although there are other possibilities.

As Chairman of the National Council for Culture, Arts and Heritage (NCCAH), Sheik Al-Thani acquired art on behalf of the Emir of Qatar for the last eight years on a scale never before seen in various art and antique markets. The plan for all these purchases is for them to be put on exhibit in five museums, which are under construction in Doha--all part of a plan to transform Qatar into a major cultural center.

During this period, Al-Thani has also purchased art for his own personal collection, which may have lead to his current difficulties--and hence the possible connection to his photography purchases. After the Bockelberg sale, New York photo dealer Hans Kraus, Jr. said that the purchases would remain in London--not Doha. Several other photographs seem to have been bought at auction by the same phone under different paddle numbers, leading one to believe that Al-Thani was buying some pieces for the Qatar government and others possibly for himself. Why this would be a problem or even if it actually was the source of the current difficulty is currently unclear.

The Art Newspaper reported that it had received a letter from the NCCAH informing the paper of the nomination of Dr. Kafoud as the new president of the NCCAH. The brief statement did not mention Sheik Al-Thani and the Art Newspaper said it was unable to reach Dr. Kafoud for comment.

The paper also reported that Sheikh Saud's London office, the Islamic Art Society, was closed on February 7th and had gone into voluntary liquidation.

According to other reports published in Qatari newspapers, the Qatari Audit Bureau has begun an investigation into a "serious misuse and misappropriation of public funds." The Arabic language Al Sharq newspaper reported that a "senior government body" spent a billion Qatari Riyals ($275 million) on one of its activities. One official was reported to be under preventative detention and two other people involved were out of the country, the newspaper claimed. An article in the English language Gulf Times said that the government body in question was the NCCAH.

According to the Art Newspaper, "some of the Sheik's purchases may have upset members of his ruling Al-Thani family, particularly the Jenkins Venus (a Roman marble statue purchased for nearly £8 million at Christie's in London), which is a sensual, female nude. 'My family thinks I am mad (because of my art purchases),' Sheikh Saud admitted to the Art Newspaper during an exclusive interview last year at his family estate outside Doha."

Whatever the reasons, at least for the time being, the world's largest collector of art and antiquities is now on the sidelines.

In the meantime, work on the five museum buildings in Doha is well underway and nearing completion and a joint project with the Louvre is apparently moving forward as planned.