Skyline of Qatar

Qatar is buying all of our fine western art

And that’s a good thing.

By times, we tend to forget that there would be no art, without people buying it. Where there is art, there is money, and for us simple mortals, that is sometimes hard to cope with. We somehow believe that art belongs to all of us, rather then to only the wealthy 1%. It’s our cultural heritage, something we identify with, relate to and build memories upon. But if you love art, it is only hypocritical to hate the people for buying it.

Just recently the art market was shocked. Paul Gauguin’s Nafea Faa Ipoipo (When Will You Marry?) was sold for about 300 million dollars to an art collector from Qatar.

Paul Gauguin — Nafea Faa Ipoipo (1892)

The oil-state has been an art-collecting powerhouse for some years now, but it is only recently that they became responsible for the two most expensive art sales of all time.

In previous years they had already bought pieces like Paul Cézanne’s The Card Players for a whopping 250 million, his La Montagne Sainte-Victoire vue du bosquet du Château Noir for over 100 Million and several Rothko’s, Warhols and even a Faberge Egg.

Now to some that feels like robbery. Unless you’re willing to fly over to the Middle East, you will never see those beautiful paintings again. To many westerners that’s just unacceptable. Those works of art should adorn the walls of the Met, Tate’s, The Rijksmuseum or any other museum in Europe or North America, they say.

Well, I disagree. I think it is good for those sheiks. Let them have something too in those depressing deserts. And better yet, it is good for us too.

Here’s why. A lot of the art we see in our museums today, wouldn’t exist without people like Sheikh Saud Al-Thani (who died last year).

Art needs money. If it needs 300 million dollars a piece is open for dispute, but it needs money nonetheless. People with average income usually don’t buy art. Maybe they buy a Warhol poster, but not often do they buy authentic pieces. They rather buy food, pay for their rent, insurance, a holiday to Bali or maybe even a car.

So we have to rely on the more upperclass part of society to keep the art market moving. Now, this isn’t the most popular statement, but I got a simple example to back up my case.

Henri Matisse - La perruche et la sirene (1952–53)

I live near Amsterdam, so recently I planned to visit the Stedelijk Museum to see the Matisse exhibition (The oasis of Matisse). Now for me, pieces like La perruche et la sirène are key-pieces in art history. It is one of my favorites.

In the knowledge that such piece of art wouldn’t exist without the helping (and funding) hand of a filthy rich tycoon, I feel absolutely no resentment when reading the articles about the filthy rich Qatar families buying ‘our’ art.

In the case of Matisse, it was not an oil sheik from Qatar, but a textile tycoon from Russia. The moment Matisse threw all conventions out of the window and was going Fauve, people thought he had gone mad. The art avant garde didn’t want any thing to do with the new work of Matisse, but he pushed through although he was heading a personal bankruptcy. He wouldn’t have made it if it wasn’t for the controversial entrepreneur Sergei Sjtsjoekin.

Henri Matisse — Open Window, Collioure (1905)

Sergei saw in the works of Matisse a new and fresh movement. Something that could change art for good. He recognized the true artistic genius in Matisse and decide to back this rebel artist.

Increasingly he started to buy work from Matisse, which gave him some room to breath and continue his chosen path. Even Sergei didn’t always quite get the innovative style of Matisse, but still it appealed to him. For Sergei this was the art of tomorrow and that made it interesting for him. In preserved correspondence he wrote: “The public is against you, but the future is yours”.

Henri Matisse — The dance (1910)

The two famous paintings Music and Dance that Matisse made, commissioned by the wealthy industrialist, are still the showpieces of the State Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, where the better part of the art collection of Sergei ended up after it was confiscated by the communists.

Even then, the works of Matisse were kept away from the public, because Stalin thought the paintings were rather decadent and amateurish.

From the moment Sergei started to back up Matisse, things went up for him. Other progressive art collectors followed the example of Sergei and found their way to Matisse’s shop.

Now I don’t say artists are only making art for the money. I would never proclaim such. But as we do, also an artist needs to eat, pay rent and quit his dayjob on top of that. Take all the big impressionist masters like Pissarro, Monet and Renoir for example. If it wasn’t for the bold entrepreneurship of the art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel, they would had no choice but to stop painting or just make art like the rest of artist did in that time. Those men wanted to bring something new to surface. They wanted to reform art. And as a result their work was being mocked and completely unsaleable.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir -Paul Durand-Ruel (1910)

On such moment as an artist you need someone with (acces to) money. In their cases it was Paul Durand-Ruel who started to buy their works, although there was no regular market for it. He decided single handed that this movement in art was too important to ignore. With quite some risk for his own reputation and his bank balance for that matter, he succeeded in finding and activating an entirely new segment of art buyers. One could say that he was the one that ignited the impressionist movement, or at least he enabled it.

Up to some extent I believe that is happening in the Middle East. We should encourage the maturing and development of a new art market over there, so young and talented artist can sell their work to the people of Qatar. I hope they enjoy their art just as much as we would. I hope those acquired works of art turn out to be more than just an expression of wealth, but an accelerant for the cultural environment and art market in the middle east, so young and future artist have more change of a commercial breakthrough that will enable them to devote their life to art.

And from that perspective, what better ambassadors could we wish for than Paul Gauguin and Paul Cézanne?

By George Vlug | @byvincent_

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