Oct. 26 (Bloomberg) -- A possible Qatari bid for Christie’s International Plc would help its emir make the country into a Middle Eastern hub of the global art market, dealers said.
Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani has already purchased artworks at Christie’s and other auction houses, the dealers said. Oil-rich Qatar has also bought the Harrods Ltd. store and real estate in central London. The emir said he may be interested in acquiring the London-based auction house, the Financial Times reported, after months of speculation about a possible Qatari bid.
“Qatar is interested in Christie’s for three reasons,” Philip Hoffman, chief executive of the London-based Fine Art Fund, said in an interview. “It wants long-term value in the art market, it’s looking to diversify its economy and it’s after advice.”
Christie’s is a private company owned by the French billionaire Francois Pinault. The auction house was bought by his holding company, Groupe Artemis SA, for $1.2 billion in May 1998. It sold 1.71 billion pounds ($2.73 billion) of art in the first half, a 46 percent increase on 2009. Offerings of paintings, watches and jewelry in Dubai -- where the company’s Middle Eastern operations are based -- raised $23.7 million.
“Following recent press articles, Artemis indicates that no sale process has been initiated regarding Christie’s, the world’s leading art business, which is one of its strategic assets,” Artemis said in an e-mailed statement today. “Artemis reaffirms its intention to pursue the long-term development of Christie’s and its support of the company’s plan to build upon its global position.”
The emir of Qatar’s office declined to comment yesterday.
Controlling Christie’s would enable Qatar, the world’s biggest producer of liquefied natural gas, to enhance its status as a cultural destination. The emir told the Financial Times that the auction house “has links with the stuff we are collecting for our museum.” Formal negotiations have yet to take place, the newspaper report said.
The royal family of Qatar has been an active buyer of selected high-value works of Western modern and contemporary art during the last five years, said Hoffman, a former Christie’s director whose managed funds include those focusing on Middle Eastern artists.
The Emir of Qatar and his wife, Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al-Missned, paid 9.7 million pounds for Damien Hirst’s 2002 pill cabinet “Lullaby Spring” at Sotheby’s London in June 2007.
They were also the buyers of Mark Rothko’s $72.8 million-painting “White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose)” at Sotheby’s New York in May 2007, the Art Newspaper said in May 2008. The price was an auction record for a postwar work of art.
“Christie’s is a trophy asset,” John Martin, a London-based dealer and co-founder of the Art Dubai fair, said in an interview. “Qatar buying the auction house could result in more international sales taking place in the Middle East. There would be stronger links with Asia. Some sellers might see it as an opportunity and would prefer to sell in the Gulf than in New York or London.”
To date, it has been Sotheby’s, rather than Christie’s that has held auctions in Qatar. The New York-based company raised $18 million at a series of sales in Doha in March 2009. Two Hirst butterfly paintings estimated to fetch as much as $1.2 million each failed to find buyers. A second event, comprising Islamic calligraphic painting, will take place on Dec. 16.
The Qatar Investment Authority, the country’s Doha-based sovereign wealth fund, owns stakes in financial institutions including Credit Suisse Group AG and Barclays Plc. The fund paid 1.5 billion pounds for Harrods in May and invested $2.8 billion in Agricultural Bank of China Ltd.’s initial public offering in June.
The emir has started a state visit to the U.K. and meets Queen Elizabeth II today.
(Scott Reyburn writes for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)
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