It is a painting of startling simplicity. Two farm labourers contemplate their cards above an empty table, their expressions as blank as the austere background against which they are posed, little more than objects in a human still life created by the artist Paul Cézanne.
Yet in the crazy 21st-century world of billionaire plutocrats and sovereign wealth funds fighting over the world's few remaining true masterpieces, this stripped-down image – measuring little more than a metre square – has nearly doubled the previous record for the highest price paid for an art work.
It emerged this weekend that The Card Players has been bought for £158m by the Qatari royal family. The sale, from the collection of the late Greek shipping magnate George Embiricos, heralds the arrival of the tiny oil-rich Gulf state as the pre-eminent force in the international art market.
As details of the purchase leaked out in Vanity Fair, experts hailed it as a watershed moment in a market which found itself uncharacteristically subdued last year as the Western economy faltered in the grip of the eurozone crisis and new buyers from Asia, Russia and the Middle East preferred to do deals in private.
Fine-art appraiser Victor Wiener said the art world had been watching and waiting for news of the Cézanne since the death of its previous owner last year. "For months, its sale has been rumoured. Now, everyone will use this price as a point of departure: it changes the whole art-market structure," he said.
The amount paid by the Qatari royals dwarfs that of the world's previous most expensive artwork. Jackson Pollock's No 5, 1948 was sold to an unknown buyer for £88.7m in 2006 at the peak of the pre-recession art-buying boom.
Under its previous ownership The Card Players was rarely lent out; however, speculation is mounting that it could take pride of place on permanent display at the Qatar National Museum, which is due to reopen in 2014.
There it will hang alongside a treasure-trove of works snapped up in recent years including pieces by Damien Hirst, Mark Rothko and Andy Warhol.
The Qataris are said to have happily trumped earlier £139m offers for the painting by art dealers William Acquavella and Larry Gagosian. The sale was completed in secret last year. It is believed the royal family were working through the New York- and Paris-based dealers GPS.
One of the driving forces behind the desert kingdom's expansion in the international art market is Sheikha Al-Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, the daughter of Qatar's Emir. The 28-year-old began her career as intern for the Tribeca Film Festival but now heads the Qatar Museums Authority. She has helped to lure some of the brightest stars in the art world to Doha.
According to research carried out by The Art Newspaper, cultural exports from the US to Qatar between 2005 and 2011 totalled £270m including the purchase of the "Rockefeller Rothko", White Center (Yellow, Pink and Lavender on Rose), for £46m. In the same period, the country imported £128m of paintings and antiques from the UK including Damien Hirst's Lullaby Spring, 2002, for which it paid £9.2m in 2007.
"The small but energy-rich Gulf state of Qatar is the world's biggest buyer in the art market – by value, at any rate – and is behind most of the major modern and contemporary art deals over the past six years," the newspaper said.
But it added: "Because of the existence of confidentiality agreements, dealers and auctioneers are not prepared to go on the record about the deals that Qatar has made."
So while its neighbour Abu Dhabi pushes ahead with plans for its own outposts of the Louvre and the Guggenheim museums, Qatar has quietly gone about establishing a glittering cultural infrastructure it hopes to have in place in time for when it hosts the 2022 World Cup, including a new Museum of Islamic Art and the Arab Museum of Modern Art.
The Card Players is the last of five studies painted by Cézanne between 1890 and 1895 in and around the family estate in Provence which paved the way for the Cubist revolution on their first public showing after the artist's death. The others reside in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Musée d'Orsay in Paris, the Courtauld Institute in London and the Barnes Foundation in Pennsylvania.
A world of wealth: Qatari investments
1. Qatar's sovereign wealth fund last month agreed to buy the Canary Wharf headquarters of Credit Suisse, Switzerland's second-biggest bank, adding to its 24 per cent stake in the east London development.
2. In 2010, Mohamed al-Fayed sold Harrods to the royal family's investment arm for £1.5bn. Qatar also holds a 20 per cent stake in Camden Market in north London and also owns Chelsea Barracks.
3. Qatar is the third-largest shareholder in car-maker Volkswagen and also has a stake in Porsche.
4. In 2010, a member of the Qatari royal family, Sheikh Abdullah Bin Nasser Al-Thani, bought Malaga football club for €36m. French club Paris Saint-Germain are arguably the richest club in the world after they were backed by the Qatar Investment Authority.
5. Last year, a Qatari investment fund bought the naming rights for the inaugural British Champions Series, which will include 35 of the top flat races in the British horse-racing calendar including outings at Royal Ascot, the Derby and St Leger meetings.Reuse content