Qatar shakes up fine art market with £158m buy

The oil-rich nation has set a new high-water mark for sales. By Jonathan Brown

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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, little more than objects in a human still life created by the artist Paul Cézanne.

Yet in a 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 1 metre square – has nearly doubled the previous record for the highest price ever paid for an art work.

It emerged this weekend that The Card Players has been bought for £158 million 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 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 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 dwarfs that of the world's previous most expensive art work. Jackson Pollock's No 5, 1948 sold for £88.7m in 2006. Similarly the £67m paid by an Asian bidder last year at Christie's for Picasso's portrait of his mistress Marie-Thérèse was the highest ever realised at auction.

Under its previous ownership, The Card Players was rarely leant out. However, there is speculation that it could be put on permanent display at the Qatar National Museum, which is due to reopen in 2014 after renovation by the architect Jean Nouvel. It would hang alongside works by Damien Hirst, Mark Rothko and Andy Warhol.

According to research by The Art Newspaper, cultural exports from the US to Qatar between 2005 and 2011 totalled £270m. In the same period Qatar imported £128m of paintings and antiques from the UK.

"The small but energy-rich Gulf state of Qatar is the world's biggest buyer in the art market... 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."

Qatar has been quietly establishing a cultural infrastructure it hopes to have in place for when it hosts the 2022 World Cup – including a Museum of Islamic Art and the Arab Museum of Modern Art.