It was a pivotal moment in art-market history. Paul Cézanne’s The Card Players—one in a series of five known paintings—had achieved a landmark record, bringing in an unprecedented $250 million through a private sale. The price was practically unimaginable, nearly double the previous record for any painting. But the biggest shock of the 2011 sale came nearly a year later, when the buyer was at last revealed to be neither a Geffen nor a Broad, but rather an al-Thani. Three years later, the Qatari monarchy dropped jaws again, picking up Paul Gauguin’s Nafea Faa Ipoipo (When Will You Marry?) in another private sale for $300 million. Out of nowhere, the ruling family from the Middle East had become the art world’s biggest player.
Royals, of course, have long been known as some of the planet’s most impassioned art collectors. Louis XIV was an obsessive patron of the decorative arts. Catherine the Great was, by her own assertion, a gluttonous collector, amassing tens of thousands of canvases, sculptures, tapestries, and porcelain designs that now fill the Hermitage Museum. And the Royal Collection—acquired by successive British monarchs over the last 500 years—remains the largest private art collection in the world, with more than 1 million objects amassed since the reign of King Henry VIII. But the age-old practice of artistic acquisition has taken on new meaning in the modern-day Middle East, where relatively nascent ruling families are altering the art world. read more