|Nafea Faa Ipoipo|
(When Will You Marry?), 1892
The painting by Paul Gauguin (left) has just sold, we are told, for a price rumoured to be $300 million (it could be more). The buyer is almost certainly the Qatar Museums Authority (who else would be able to dig so deep?). I say “rumoured”, because like the $250 million Cézanne, also recently dispatched into the Al Thani desert kingdom, the exact price paid for Gauguin’s Nafea Faa Ipoipo is being kept under wraps.
You might reasonably ask why all the secrecy, given that half a billion dollars is already a stupefying sum of money to pay for two paintings, no matter who painted them. Perhaps the real price was much higher, indeed so high that confidentiality was the surest way to avoid the contumely that such prices inevitably invite.
Half a billion dollars for two paintings. If you were in any doubt about what, precisely, has turned the upper echelons of the art market into a sinister club controlled by money-laundering gangsters, tax-evading oligarchs, slave-driving Arab potentates and cynical ‘art consultants’, look no further than Qatar, a country the size of Jamaica, whose 264,000 inhabitants, made Croesus-rich by bottomless reserves of liquefied petroleum, outnumber by 4.5 to 1 the foreign labourers imported to build the country’s 2022 World Cup stadiums.
But “foreign labourers” doesn’t quite cut it given that their employment conditions could be more accurately described as modern day slavery.
And there you have it, the likely real reason why the vendor of the Gauguin, the retired Basel-based Sotheby's executive Rudolf Staechelin, sheepishly declined to confirm whether the Qataris were the buyers of his Gauguin: "I don't deny it and I don't confirm it,” was his gnomic response to the New York Times inquiry.
The Al Thani dynasty who rule Qatar have not had a happy time of late, losing Sheikh Saud bin Mohammed Al-Thani to a fatal heart condition and rumours abounding of unpaid bills for art and other blue-chip collectibles. Now it seems the Al Thani art machine may be insisting on vendor confidentiality clauses whenever another high-ticket work is added to the national collection. With Filipino housemaids being denied their fundamental human rights and Nepalese construction workers dying at a rate of almost one a day to build the country’s World Cup infrastructure, is it any surprise that the rulers of this slave-state are reluctant to disclose the details of their multi-million dollar art acquisitions?
Perhaps the Qatari Cultural Authority foresees hordes of soccer-loving visitors taking time out between matches in the air-conditioned stadiums at the 2022 World Cup finals to gaze at the Post-Impressionist masterpieces in the country’s shiny new art galleries. But how could you properly appreciate a painting while a quarter-of-a-billion-dollar price tag is blurring your visual cortex? Moreover, how many people died to build these stately pleasure-domes packed with pictures? The Guardian tells us that the World Cup construction project alone “will leave 4,000 migrant workers dead.” Cultural Authority? I have a better word for it.
And what of the religious implications of the recent acquisitions? According to the CIA Fact Book, 77.5% of Qatar’s population is Muslim, most of whom, we can thus assume, hold to the words of the prophet, one of whose most widely attributed sayings is the bald statement: "Angels do not enter a house in which there is a dog or a picture.”
Clearly the ‘picture’ part of that prohibition has been relaxed to make way for Cézanne’s Card Players and Gauguin’s When Will You Marry? Fortunately neither painting includes the image of a dog. So in the unlikely event they will ever come onto the open market, we can assume that Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Marriage Portrait, Titian’s Portrait of Charles V, and any number of Lucian Freuds will never be granted entry into the Qatar Museum, or not while the angels are in residence.
The contradictions don’t stop there. Another recent work to disappear into the gaping maw of Qatar’s so-called cultural programme — Damien Hirst’s string of 14 monster foetuses, entitled The Miraculous Journey, said to have cost somewhere between $20-40 million (but what does it matter?) have already upset the more traditional sections of the Qatari community who find the naked human form offensive.
Sheikha al Mayassa Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, chair of the Qatar Museums Authority, which commissioned the Hirst work, made valiant efforts to bridge the gulf between local sensibilities and the more pressing imperative to acquire an example of what all the super-rich feel obliged to own. “There is a verse in the Koran about the miracle of birth,” she was quoted as saying. “It is not against our culture or our religion.” However, it now seems she was fighting a losing battle, for the Hirst monstrosities were soon quietly shrouded with tarpaulins and are rumoured to be en route to a more discreet location away from the sensitive gaze of the locals. Not such a miraculous journey, after all. Hirst v Koran? Koran wins on points.
What will be the next picture to enter the Land of Prohibited Pictures? It’s a safe bet that with billions of dollars waiting to snap up the finest works, collectors will be eyeing up their masterpieces and waiting for the phone to ring.