JUST BEFORE THE MAASTRICHT FAIR opened last month, as all the dealers stood ready and waiting at their stands, one slender, bespectacled buyer was given a special early tour, guided by a fair trustee. As he examined a 16th-century cabinet here, an antiquity or a tribal mask there, whispers followed his passage through the stands, because every dealer knew who he was: Sheikh Saud Al Thani, cousin of the Emir of Qatar, the world’s most active collector of art and the market’s biggest spender.
For the past decade, Sheikh Saud has moved through the market like a whirlwind, collecting voraciously in a huge range of fields. He has purchased textiles, Egyptian antiquities, natural history prints, precious stones, jewellery, fossils, narwhal tusks, entire libraries, photographs and vintage cameras, Roman antiquities, Art Deco furniture, statues, vintage cars, antique bicycles and 18th-century French furniture, and much more besides.
He is not collecting for himself: most of the art is destined for museums planned in Doha, the capital of the tiny, fabulously rich emirate of Qatar. In a few years, if all goes according to plan, the city will become a cultural and educational hub for the whole of the Gulf area, with at least five new museums, all designed by world-famous architects such as I M Pei and Santiago Calatrava.
As president of Qatar’s National Council for Culture, Arts and the Heritage, Sheikh Saud is responsible for building the collections of these museums. The resources and the political will are there: only the sheer administrative burden of undertaking so much at once could hamper progress.
Until now, little was known about the museum programme, except for the names of the architects. What was going into them remained a mystery, even if every time a huge price is paid at auction, the Sheikh is inevitably identified as the probable buyer.
There have been some peeks behind the veil: in the last three years, a selection of pieces from the future Museum of Islamic Art have been shown during the Doha Cultural Festival. This year, the Silk and Ivory exhibition in Doha displayed 32 items and provided a sneak preview of items that will be on show.
It was during a visit to Silk and Ivory that I met Sheikh Saud, at Al Wabra, the family’s desert estate some 30 minutes from Doha. Set in the flat rock-and-sand plain that makes up the Qatari peninsula, Al Wabra has been transformed by the Sheikh into an animal conservation centre. In it he is breeding endangered wildlife, particularly birds and gazelles. An animal hospital, lecture centre and accommodation for the 120 staff are being built on the premises.
Middle Eastern rulers have traditionally had menageries of gazelles, cheetahs and antelopes, but the Sheikh’s estate is no hobby, rather a sustained programme: he also funds conservation programmes in other parts of the world. He even got shot at when venturing into Somalia on a mission to save the Beria antelopes, which are facing extinction. He managed to bring back nine to Qatar.
THE DAY I VISIT IS A FRIDAY, and as the muezzin calls to prayer, the jackals trotting around in their pens start to bark. Storks, peacocks and guinea fowl range on the lawns around the house, which retains a domestic feel, with children’s climbing frames outside. The Sheikh, who is in his late 30s, is married with three children.
He is the first cousin of the Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, who came to power in 1995 after deposing his father in a bloodless coup. Sheikh Hamad has brought new, progressive thinking into his small state. Qatar is a country where the emir holds absolute power, so the oil and gas revenues can be used as he wishes - l’tat, c’est lui - and sits between the modern world, with its rigid organisation, and the personal nature of the tribal world. With ultra-commercial Dubai on one side and the deeply conservative Saudi Arabia on another, Qatar has chosen a third way, that of education and culture. The Emir’s wife, Sheikha Mouzah, heads the Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development.
Dignified, reserved but pleasant, Sheikh Saud is dressed in traditional Arab costume, a long white robe, its cuffs held by simple silver links. He wears a white head-dress with black bands and, from time to time, plays with coral worry beads. One might have expected this feverish collector, involved in a storm of projects, to be impatient. On the contrary: he seems calm and unhurried.
Educated in Doha and Egypt, he is entirely self-taught in art history. However, dealers in a range of fields are unanimous: despite his lack of formal training, the sheikh has an extraordinary visual memory and considerable knowledge as well as an excellent ‘eye’. "He has learned more in two years than many learn in 15," says one antiquities dealer.
I ask Sheikh Saud why he is building so many museums. "His Highness the Emir is changing many things, particularly in the cultural and educational fields, even in entertainment," he replies. "He wants his people to understand, when they go to a museum, what is good or bad, what is old and new. He does not want a museum to be academic, but a place to enjoy.
"Here in Qatar, we are poor in history. We don’t have our own Islamic pieces like Egypt or Turkey, so we collect Islamic art across the board. For the government, the target is to improve culture. Step by step, we want to become a very cultivated city."
"I go by masterpieces," he says. "Pieces from an important church, a major family, a great collection, these really interest me, they have history and provenance. You get them in the best possible condition, and there are no problems of authenticity. I want visitors to see the very best, or nothing at all. This is a way of ensuring that my successor will have to collect at the same level, I will set the standard."
His reference to a successor, for a man not yet 40, hints at a feeling that he must achieve a lot very quickly, and at a fear that his work will not be continued. He has often said that what he is trying to achieve will not be understood in his lifetime.
To achieve his goal he has surrounded himself with advisors. These include curators such as Oliver Watson, from the Islamic Department of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and Hubert Bari, from the Musum d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris, who are already living in Doha. "Our target is great quality, and first you have to judge this with your eyes," says the Sheikh. "Afterwards, for authenticity and provenance, then you need advice, and we have curators and sources we can call on."
One is Michael Franses, the London-based textile dealer who curated Silk and Ivory. Mr Franses recounts how Sheikh Saud asked him for lists of the greatest pieces in private collections, and then flew to see each owner and attempted to buy the pieces, sometimes with success. The Sheikh has swallowed whole collections, such as the Bokelberg group of historical photographs, for an estimated 15 million, and the Spira collection of vintage cameras.
But it is in the saleroom that Sheikh Saud has had the biggest impact, even if he is rarely identified as a buyer. He admits he can get carried away with auction fever, and when he has wanted something, he has paid extraordinary sums, well over the odds.
"He is sometimes very enthusiastic in a sale, and it is not always clear who could be underbidding," says one dealer. He spent 6 million buying half the lots at the Jammes auction of photography in London in 1999, paying 507,000 for Gustave Le Gray’s Grande Vague Ste. In Paris, he swooped on Coptic textiles and Iznik ceramics being sold from the Kelekian collection at Drouot. Two major pieces of Western Islamic metalwork, a 10th-century Cordoba hind which sold for 3.6 million in 1997, and the peacock sold last year for 900,000, are his, as is the rediscovered Renaissance roundel which made 7.9 million at Christie’s last December.
He also bought Audubon’s Birds of America from the collection of the Marquis of Bute at Christie’s New York in 2000 for 8.8 million; Redout’s Les Roses and the earliest text written in Arabic - and much, much more. "I don’t feel I have to compete for every object," he says, "but when a great work of art comes up for sale, it’s never too expensive. I lost one object in terms of price, and now it has gone somewhere else, and I shall never get it."
Some of his collections are stored in a series of warehouses at the estate. Visiting these buildings, packed floor to ceiling, is a remarkable experience. A statue from an English stately home stands next to a Benin bronze, while propped beside them is the third-century BC Roman glass bowl with tangent rings, one of the best pieces of Roman glass in the world, sold by the British Rail Pension Fund at Sotheby’s in 1997. (Bidding anonymously, Sheikh Saud acquired 11 pieces in the sale.) Auction tags still hang from many pieces, and dealers’ labels are propped alongside others.
Hanging on the wall is a Sassanian lion carpet in astonishingly good condition, its colours as bright as the day it was woven. Egyptian antiquities line the shelves: Sheikh Saud is passionate about the 18th dynasty and Akhenaten, the pharaoh to whom he bears a startling resemblance. Egyptian specialists say his knowledge of the dynasty is remarkable.
Turn a corner and you stumble upon Boutet de Monvel’s painting of the Maharajah of Indore, another influence on the Sheikh. It hangs above the maharajah’s Art Deco bed, between two colossal bookcases, also by Ruhlmann. He has many other Art Deco pieces from the maharajah’s palace (the contents of which were sold at auction in 1980), and they are reportedly destined for the futuristic palace Arata Isozaki has designed for him as a home.
A scale model of the building sits on the floor of the warehouse: resembling a silver flying saucer, it has a long ramp curving around the whole structure and leading to glass boxes on the top, where cars and other items will be displayed. Beneath a glass dome is a swimming pool which the Sheikh has asked the artist David Hockney to design.
There is a whole store of natural history specimens, notably fossils of very high quality, petrified tree trunks and even a complete dinosaur skeleton. The Sheikh also has a collection of precious stones as good as the Sultan of Brunei’s.
A climate-controlled room holds the natural history library, which specialists say is as good as any in the world and which cost 250 million alone. Sheikh Saud went head-to-head with the French state over the 18th-century Trait Gnral des Pesches, an illustrated manuscript of absolute rarity, which he bought for some 500,000 at auction in France.
It was then denied an export licence by the French government and it is probable that it will go on long-term loan to a French museum. So has he had other problems with export? "I try to avoid them," he replies. "I would not go for something that might not be exportable, or if there is a subsequent difficulty I give the work to the country. I just gave back a number of items to Egypt."
I ask why he collects so many photographs. "I love the art of it, and the light in some of the pictures is wonderful, for example in Le Grey’s Grande Vague Ste. I also have a large collection of lenses and cameras; I think of the lenses as sculpture. But I bought the daguerreotype The Temple of Jupiter in Athens by Girault de Prangey, [which set a new record for a photograph last year at 565,250] for myself."
However, he does not collect impressionist and Old Master paintings. I asked him whether this is because it is almost impossible to establish a first-rate collection. "No," he says, "I am more interested in objects, I am not excited by huge things. I love smaller pieces. I need to feel a piece, to be able to handle it."
Which raises the question, where does the private collection stop and the public one begin? Sheikh Saud is extremely wealthy, so he is buying both for the state museums and for himself. "I am focusing on natural history, which has always been my hobby and is reflected in the breeding programme," he says.
And what do the Qataris think about his collecting? "My family thinks I am crazy!" he admits. "You must remember that Qatar is small, and that there are really only about 100,000 or 120,000 Qataris. It is like a small British town. I have to take account of what people here think."
But the Sheikh’s vision seems far broader than that contained in current public opinion. Parties of schoolchildren were being taken around the silk exhibition when I visited, in the hope of engendering a lifelong interest in art history. In a generation, the Sheikh hopes, Qatar will have its own specialists as well as its own excellent museums in a whole range of specialities.