Most of us didn’t even know the painting had actually sold, although it was common knowledge that something was going on. That was last year. The then owner of The Card Players was Greek shipping magnate George Embiricos. He hadn’t long to live and wanted the Cezanne to go. He died before any agreement and his estate clinched it.
The buyer? Qatar. But don’t dismiss this as capriciousness by an oil rich Middle East royal family. This is not just something to hang in the super yacht. This is not a display of ostentation by the emir, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani. Qatar is a very serious player in the world art market and importantly, how and where it is displayed. Not in secret but for as many to see as possible.
Qatar is the biggest single buyer in the world of contemporary art.
And, the emir understands perfectly where this big buy sits in the whole history of world contemporary art. When you buy Paul Cezanne, you’re buying more than a painting. Picasso said Cezanne was the beginning, “the father of us all”.
So let’s get the Qataris in cultural perspective. It has the Museum of Islamic Art, the Arab Museum of Modern Art and next week anyone with an ounce of contemporary art credibility should be in Qatar for the Takashi Murakami exhibition. The more than figurehead of the Murakami show is 28-year-old Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, the daughter of the emir.
Apart from the drama of the affair, we have to think how we value such a painting. The Card Players was worth such a high price because it was one of the few Cezanne in this series in private hands. The others are in museums.
But it raises the question of valuation in this way: supposing a seventeenth century Rembrandt came to the market? What would it go for? No one can guess but it would be a massive amount more than the Cezanne. The sky may not be the limit in art sales, but there is a quiet competition running.
Not too many Greek shipowners are doing this sort of money. But watch the Gulf States, especially Abu Dhabi, Qatar’s neighbor and probably the richest city on the globe. The art lyric is more cheerful than the Bachmann-Turner album, Not Fragile but the sentiment is the same as the big title, You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet.
So, we’re nibbling scallops in The Ivy and I’m wearing my try-to-look-intelligent frown & spieling all this to Connie, when she yawns. When Connie yawns, even her best mannered friends do a mental arithmetic job on what her whiter than white teeth must have cost. (I happen to know that it came in her second husband alimony deal and must have cost the price of a small Cezanne).
Connie does another yawn (make that two Cezannes) and says if the Qataris are such culture vultures how come they financed a chunk of the hit on Libya and now want to do a similar number on Syria? I mention that the Americans built a helipad on the site of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Okay, we’re into moral high-grounds too rarified for either of us. But events like The Card Players sale must trigger all sorts of moral thoughts. Why not? That’s one of the givens of great art. It’s about truth and deep down, we’re all a little uncomfortable with that.
By the by, mentioning Picasso, get a ticket to London to see Picasso and Modern British Art at the Tate 15 February thro 15 July. Sixty Picasso’s with modern British painters including Ben Nicholson, Wyndham Lewis, Francis Bacon and David Hockney. Quite a show and for most of us, easier than getting to Qatar or Abu Dhabi.
ArtScene QuoteDon't be an art critic. Paint. There lies salvation. Paul Cezanne