With this landmark score, the tiny, oil-rich nation joins a massively exclusive club: only five Card Players exist, and the other four are in world-class collections such as the Musée d’Orsay and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The purchase is just the latest bid in Qatar’s effort to become an international intellectual hub.
The tiny, oil-rich nation of Qatar has purchased a Paul Cézanne painting, The Card Players, for more than $250 million. The deal, in a single stroke, sets the highest price ever paid for a work of art and upends the modern art market.
If the price seems insane, it may well be, since it more than doubles the current auction record for a work of art. And this is no epic van Gogh landscape or Vermeer portrait, but an angular, moody representation of two Aix-en-Provence peasants in a card game. But, for its $250 million, Qatar gets more than a post-Impressionist masterpiece; it wins entry into an exclusive club. There are four other Cézanne Card Players in the series; and they are in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Musée d’Orsay, the Courtauld, and the Barnes Foundation. For a nation in the midst of building a museum empire, it’s instant cred.
Is the painting, created at the cusp of the 20th century, worth it? Well, Cézanne inspired Cubism and presaged abstract art, and Picasso called him “the father of us all.” That said, “$250 million is a fortune,” notes Victor Wiener, the fine-art appraiser called in by Lloyd’s of London when Steve Wynn put his elbow through a Picasso, in 2006. “But you take any art-history course, and a Card Players is likely in it. It’s a major, major image.” For months, he said, “its sale has been rumored. Now, everyone will use this price as a point of departure: it changes the whole art-market structure.”
The Cézanne sale actually took place in 2011, and details of the secret deal are now coming out as a slew of V.I.P. collectors, curators, and dealers head to Qatar for the opening next week of a Takashi Murakami blockbuster that was recently on view in the Palace of Versailles. The nation, located on its own small jetty off the Arabian Peninsula, is a new destination on the art-world grand tour: current exhibitions include an 80-foot-high Richard Serra and a Louise Bourgeois retrospective (her bronze spider is crawling across the Doha Convention Center), and in March it hosts a Global Art Forum that attracts artists, curators, and patrons from museum groups worldwide.