A member of the Qatari royal family and one of the largest art buyers has pledged the world's most expensive watch and about 240 other collectibles to Sotheby's to cover debts owed to the auction house, according to court documents.
Sheik Saud Bin Mohammed Bin Ali Al-Thani, a cousin of the emir of Qatar, provided items from diamond jewelry to tribal art and four vintage watches made by Patek Philippe of Geneva, Switzerland, the auction house said in an Oct. 12 filing with the New York Department of State.
The timepieces include a pocket watch known as the Henry Graves Supercomplication, which an anonymous bidder bought for a record $11 million in a Sotheby's auction in 1999. In total, Sotheby's holds items valued at almost $83 million from Al-Thani, according to a court document.
Al-Thani has been hit with two lawsuits since the end of September, one alleging he failed to pay for $19.8 million of ancient Greek coins that he bid on in January. A British court, in a judgment Friday extending a freeze on $15 million of the sheik's assets at the request of the coin dealers, said Al-Thani appears to have left at least 11 auction houses and dealers unpaid in the last 18 months, including $42 million owed to Sotheby's.
Al-Thani couldn't be reached for comment. A man who identified himself as a "private employee" at an office the sheik maintains near London's Portman Square said Al-Thani was out of the country for a month. Andrew Gully, a spokesman for New York-based Sotheby's, said the firm doesn't comment on private business arrangements.
"It's not unheard of in the auction business, when clients run into cash problems, for auction houses to take property in lieu of payment," said Michael Plummer, the cofounder of Artvest, a New York-based firm that provides investment advice for the art market and a former chief operating officer of the financial-services unit at auction house Christie's. Plummer said he had no knowledge of Al-Thani's specific situation.
Al-Thani formerly ran Qatar's National Council for Culture, Arts and Heritage, where he spearheaded a national effort to furnish a new museum complex by spending as much as $1.5 billion on artwork and collectibles during the decade ending in 2005, according to ARTnews.
In early 2005, Al-Thani was arrested in Doha under suspicion of misusing public funds, according to ARTnews and the Telegraph newspaper in Britain. No official record could be located on whether Al-Thani was charged. A spokesman for the Qatari embassy in Washington didn't return a telephone call seeking comment.
The sheik resurfaced in the art market several years later, and ARTnews named him as one of the world's top 10 collectors in August 2011, estimating he had spent several hundred million dollars on art during the preceding two years.
"He is a connoisseur," said Peter Finer, a London-based dealer of fine antique arms and armor whose website lists clients such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Victoria and Albert Museum. Finer said that since the 1990s he has been selling items to Al-Thani, who always conducted himself "impeccably."
In January, Al-Thani successfully bid on coins including a $3.25 million single gold piece from the Ancient Greek city of Pantikapaion that bears the head of a bearded satyr, according to an Oct. 9 lawsuit filed in Washington, D.C., by A.H. Baldwin & Sons of London, M&M Numismatics of Washington and Dmitry Markov Coins and Medals of New York.
Al-Thani hasn't paid for any of the coins, and the plaintiffs are charging the sheik monthly interest of 2 percent, according to Friday's ruling in London.
"This pattern of behaviour is both unexplained and inexplicable," the London court said in Friday's order. "The sheik's royal status is irrelevant. We are all equal in the eyes of the law."
Al-Thani attorney Stephen Rubin declined to comment. Michael Ward, an attorney at SJ Berwin, a firm that is also representing the sheik, didn't immediately return a call seeking comment.
The Sotheby's filing reveals for the first time that Al- Thani is the owner of the Graves Supercomplication, which has a star chart showing changes in the night sky over Manhattan and a minute recorder that plays the same melody as Big Ben, the bell of the clock tower at the Palace of Westminster in London. Following the 1999 Sotheby's sale, the pocket watch went on display as part of the Patek Philippe Museum's collection in Geneva.
— With assistance from Dermot Doherty in Geneva , Robert Tuttle in Doha and Devon Pendleton in London.