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An Emirate Filling Up With Artwork
The emirate itself was the world’s biggest buyer in the art market by value last year, according to The Art Newspaper, an international art publication.

Qatari officials tend to be tight-lipped about acquisitions, but art experts say major purchases in the past few years have included $72.8 million spent in 2007 at Sotheby’s for Mark Rothko’s “White Center,” formerly owned by David Rockefeller, and a record $250 million reported, though not confirmed, to have been paid last year in a private deal for a Paul Cézanne, “The Card Players.”

Qatari buyers make up to 25 percent of the Middle East’s $11 billion art market, according to calculations by Philip Hoffman, chief executive of the Fine Art Fund Group, an art investment management and consulting firm based in London. His team manages an art fund for clients with a minimum of $3 million in investable assets that became available to Mideast clients last year through a partnership with Emirates NBD, a bank based in Dubai. The fund taps the Middle East art market, which Mr. Hoffman believes is set to triple in the next five years and gain an even bigger foothold in the $3 trillion international art market.

“Qatar is clear on wanting to build phenomenal art collections and aware that if they want amazing pieces like the Cézanne work, they will have to pay the hefty $250 million price tag — and they are capable of doing it,” he said in a telephone interview. “Purchases like this will become benchmarks for the pricing of very rare art.”

JPMorgan Chase and Deutsche Bank have also set up art funds in the region to ensure that they do not miss opportunities in this burgeoning market.

Wealthy people with $1 million or more to play with are increasingly looking for capital growth and risk diversification by putting money into “passion investments,” including art, said the World Wealth Report 2011 by Merrill Lynch and Capgemini.

The report said 22 percent of passion investments were dedicated to art, with 42 percent of financial advisers surveyed noting that “high net worth clients invest in art primarily for its potential to gain value.”

Auction houses are feeling the benefit. Since Christie’s set up an office in Dubai in 2005, its client base has grown by 22 to 25 percent annually, including new collectors from Qatar, according to Isabelle de la Bruyère, director of Christie’s Middle East. She said 60 percent of those new clients go on to bid in Christie’s international sales.

“This means they are not just one time collectors; they start with buying art from their own region and then expand,” she said in an interview at Christie’s offices in the Dubai International Financial Center. “This is important in nurturing a sustainable art market.”

Sustainability is vitally important for the continuing development of Qatar’s art scene, which has grown dramatically over the last three years.

Current exhibitions in Doha’s museums bring shows by several high-profile artists to the Middle East for the first time, ranging from quirky pieces by the Japanese pop artist Takashi Murakami to the dreamlike sculptures of the late French artist Louise Bourgeois.

“Qatar is going through an art renaissance,” Jean-Paul Engelen, director of public art programs for the Qatar Museums Authority, said in a telephone interview. “At the moment we have three major international exhibitions, which is very rare in the Mideast, and we will alternate to feature local artists next.”

Mr. Engelen, who formerly worked at Christie’s in London for 16 years and moved to Doha last year, said that “ Qatar has a vision to become a global leader in the arts.”

A commitment is being made to support regional artists in addition to building collections of renowned works by established international artists, according to Antonia Carver, the fair director of Art Dubai. Sheik Hassan bin Mohammed bin Ali Al-Thani, who founded Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, in Doha, has been supporting artists for years and providing “residencies” before they were known in this part of the world, Ms. Carver said.

“News about Cézanne and Damien Hirst hits headlines, but it’s perhaps these more localized forms of patronage — such as Sheik Hassan’s care for Iraqi artists over several decades — that are particularly meaningful within the region,” Ms. Carver said in an e-mailed statement.

To advise on establishing a long-term art presence in Qatar, an international team of art buyers, including Edward J. Dolman, a former chairman of Christie’s, was brought in to Doha to help run investments and museum projects for the royal family.

“Qatar’s royal family are very much like modern-day equivalents of the Medicis in 16th-century Florence,” said William Lawrie, part owner of the Lawrie Shabibi gallery in Dubai. “What they and the Qatar museum authority have been doing is collecting art in various categories and organically developing a truly impressive art scene.”

“Qatar is very far ahead of the curve, not just in works commissioned on site, but also works on loan from collectors around the world,” he added. “They are making it a point to engage with the global art scene.”

With such an agenda, it comes as no surprise that Qatar, largely through its museum authority and the investments of the royal family, has become one of the world’s biggest buyers of art.

“More of the world’s best paintings will be heading to Qatar in the next three years,” said Mr. Hoffman, the Fine Art Fund Group chief. He added that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates also had great potential to be influential art market players.

By - SARA HAMDAN for New York Times