posted Juned 2, 2004
Sheikh Saud’s London spending spree
With a seemingly limitless budget and five museums to fill, he bought 350 objects in the Islamic sales
By Georgina Adam and Lucian Harris
In April, The Art Newspaper brought you an exclusive interview with Sheikh Saud al-Thani of Qatar. Now we reveal the voracity with which he is collecting for the five museums he is building in the Qatari capital, Doha.
A team of London agents working for the Sheikh bought 350 of the top lots in last months’ Islamic sales, spending well in excess of £15 million. The objects are all destined for the Museum of Islamic Art under construction in Doha to the designs of I.M. Pei, the Chinese-American architect coaxed out of retirement by Sheikh Saud.
With its completion scheduled for 2006, the Islamic museum will be the first of the five to open, and the Sheikh`s determination to buy the very best for its collection is having an extraordinary effect on the Islamic art market.
Currently, there is no other market in the world comparable to it. While auctions will always throw up sleepers and the occasional sale room tussle when two bidders go after one piece, recent Islamic sales have been an arena for regular head-to-head bidding wars between Sheikh Saud and his competitors, most prominent of whom is another colossally rich collector, Sheikh Nasser al-Sabah of Kuwait, who also has a keen eye for anything special in the field and buys to supplement his established collection of over 20,000 objects in the Kuwait National Museum.
With the auction houses bending over backwards to accommodate this demand, the latest round of Islamic art sales in London saw an unprecedented range of material on offer and fat catalogues all round. Even with this optimistic mood, no one had quite predicted the succession of gripping auction room battles that left Christie’s and Sotheby’s celebrating some of their best results ever and only Bonhams ruing the failure of its top lots to sell.
Sheikh Saud is currently dominating the top sales, and while underbidders such as Sheikh Nasser are contributing to the rocketing prices on many objects, in this particular round of auctions it seems that no one was prepared to match the astronomical sums paid by the man from Qatar.
In terms of spectacular lots, Christie’s undoubtedly had the scoop with a group of five imperial-quality Mughal and Nawabi objects brought back from India in the 18th century by Robert, First Lord Clive, the East India Company’s governor of Bengal whose victory at Plassey in 1757 laid the foundations for the British Raj. All but one had previously been on display in the Clive Museum at Powis Castle in Wales, and their loss depletes Britain’s oldest and most complete 18th-century collection of artefacts from India. In addition to these glamorous trophies of empire, Christie’s put on a combined sale of two of the world’s most important private collections of Islamic tiles.
While obviously disappointed to miss the Clive treasures, Edward Gibbs at Sotheby’s put together a smaller but more diverse selection from across the range of Islamic arts, with highlights that included an emerald inscribed with the name of the Mughal emperor Jahangir and an Anatolian gold cup from around 2500BC found on the island of Imbros, which despite having little reason to appear in an Islamic sale, looked certain to catch the eye of a sheikh.
So at Christie’s on 27 April, after a morning of mixed results in which a rare 16th-century cameo of Barbarossa more than doubled its high estimate at £128,000, and a giant folio from the Timurid “Baysunghur” Koran scraped in only just over its low estimate at £565,250, a packed room held its breath for the Clive of India treasures.
The action came sooner than expected, however, when a 17th-century Mughal dagger, from the 18th-century collection of Sir Charles William Rouse Boughton, ignited a frantic bidding war on the telephones, causing jaws to drop as the high estimate of £40,000 was left far behind for an eventual sale at £632,450. The buyer was Sheikh Saud bidding through an agent in the room.
With hardly time to blink, up came the top lot of the Clive collection, a unique 17th-century Mughal jade wine flask, lined with gold and inlaid with rubies and emeralds, which had been on loan to the Victoria and Albert Museum since 1963. This time it was telephones against the book, with a beaming auctioneer William Robinson taking the prize at £2,917,250. Clearly impressed by the important historical associations of the Clive objects, the big hitters kept at it, sending a later Mughal agate-and-garnet fly-whisk handle rocketing to 113 times its high estimate of £8,000, eventually selling for £901,250. Once again, the winning bid was placed by an agent working for Sheikh Saud.
The Sheikh refused to back down as the bidding escalated on another Mughal jade-hilted dagger, and he finally bought it for £733,250, 11 times its high estimate of £50,000. His agent swept in once again to pick up a carved green nephrite jade bowl for £53,775.
The final item in the sale, a Mughal sapphire and ruby inset enamelled silver huqqa set, sold for £94,850 to a different bidder in the room. But this fooled no-one who follows the Islamic market carefully. Once again, The Art Newspaper can reveal that the buyer was Sheikh Saud.
Islamic tiles are a particular favourite, and Sheikh Saud’s agent continued to buy energetically from the Theodor Sehmer and Heidi Vollmoeller Collections. A personal taste for modern design saw him go after two unusual Safavid tiles, both with low estimates of only £1,000, which after frenzied bidding were secured by the Sheikh for £94,850 and £31,070 respectively, setting the pattern for the rest of the afternoon session in which he secured almost everything he bid for.
The following day, at Sotheby’s, the Sheikh was represented by paddle number LO33, and scooped seven of the top 10 lots. These included the Jahangiri emerald, consigned by the family of the Khan of Khalat, which doubled estimate at £1.9 million; a very rare 16th-century dagger with a lapis handle estimated at £50-70,000, which despite oxidisation of the gold-inlaid blade, made £1.036 million after competition from no less than four telephone buyers; and a 14th-century Central Asian ceramic cenotaph, on offer from a Liechtenstein foundation, which tripled its “on request” estimate, selling at £1.46 million despite probably being a composite of two original tombs. The Imbros gold cup, meanwhile, went for £435,600, only just over its low estimate, while the unusual, early 17th-century Gujarati mother-of-pearl ewer with European mounting, which Sotheby’s had put on its catalogue cover, was bought in.
With Christie’s reporting its highest total ever for a sale of Islamic art, over £11 million, and Sotheby’s making over £7 million, Bonhams tried to get its own slice of the action, offering a pair of gem-set rings supposedly made for Muhammad Ghauri, the first Muslim conqueror of Delhi in the late 12th century. Though seemingly ideal for a museum of Islamic art, these and a number of other rings and seals grouped with them all failed to sell, leaving Bonham’s with only a good mark-up on some high quality Iznik to celebrate.
While Sheikh Saud’s limitless budget is transfixing observers of the Islamic art market and will make his Museum of Islamic art in Doha a treasure house of spectacular objects, the effect of this kind of bottomless buying power discourages smaller fry and other museums. Sotheby’s saw 37% bought in by lot, while Christie’s, which had the stronger sale, only saw 18% bought in. Manuscripts and miniatures had the most difficult time, with only the very best finding buyers, and the same fate befell much of the Qajar lacquerwork.
Note to Jay/programmers: I tried the code “UL” on the words “The Art Newspaper” in the text, presuming it meant “underline”, and what it did is make a space before and after, and indent as well; it did NOT underline.