Cold wind hits Qatar art scene as Gulf state cuts back

It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of the state of Qatar on the art market as the biggest, if also the most secretive, buyer of art at the highest end. (The $250m it paid for Cézanne’s “Card Players” in 2011 is still the record for a work of art.) While its museum plans are just as secretive – unlike those of neighbouring Abu Dhabi, which recently unveiled more acquisitions for its Louvre and Guggenheim museums – Qatar is certainly ambitious, judging by its spending on art, which has been reported as topping $1bn a year.

However, with the arrival of new emir Sheikh Tamim, who also faces the firestorm over revelations that the 2022 World Cup selection process might have been rigged, it seems that deep cuts in funding are on the agenda. The state-backed Qatar Museums Authority, rebranded as “Qatar Museums”, has confirmed that “a review of duplication” could lead to big job losses. Seen as significant is the appointment of Mansour Al-Mahmoud as acting chief executive of QM after the departure of Ed Dolman to Phillips. He also serves on the executive board of the Doha Film Institute, which has already seen budgets slashed and a third of staff lose their jobs.

Another sign of change is that the Katara Art Center is closing down for lack of funding. The private initiative – launched by collector and entrepreneur Tariq Al-Jaidah in 2011 – held workshops and exhibitions but, says its director Mayssa Fattouh: “It is an unfortunate reality that small cultural entities receive little financial support, and in a city that has large ambitions the smaller efforts are often overshadowed.” That is a reference to the huge, expensive shows of Takashi Murakami, Cai Guo-Qiang, Damien Hirst and Adel Abdessemed held in the past two years, which have led to criticisms that funding is overly skewed towards international, rather than local, artists.

KAC closes tomorrow, with a music performance and statements by the KAC team.

Op-artist Victor Vasarely (Getty)

What now for the market for Victor Vasarely? After 20 years of vicious litigation over the estate of the op-artist – whose eye-bending geometrical compositions graced hotels, boardrooms and student digs in the 1970s – a final judgment has been handed down by the French appeal court. It has ruled that some 450 works distributed to the heirs of the artist after his death rightfully belong to the Vasarely Foundation, which runs two museums in France.

After having completely dropped from view, work by Vasarely has been enjoying a revival, at least for his earliest pieces. The record stands at £562,250, set at Sotheby’s in 2010 for “Altai III” (1955-58). But what happens now if one of the 450 works reappears on the market? According to Pierre Vasarely, president of the foundation and grandson of the artist: “We would try to negotiate with the owner – as long as they had been bought in an above-board transaction.” He claims that there have been some contentious deals, and a consequence of this new ruling could be that some works become unsaleable. Indeed, last year a former lawyer for the foundation – who had apparently been paid in works of art – attempted to sell 22 works through the French auction house Artcurial, only to see them seized at the last minute and the sale cancelled.

Modigliani’s ‘Seated Man with a Cane’ (1918) (Bridgeman Art Library)

Scion of the billionaire Nahmad family of art traders, the New York-based Helly Nahmad – who recently pleaded guilty to running an illegal gambling operation and was sentenced to a year and a day in jail – is facing another court case. This is, in fact, related to an older, civil case which has been revived, and this time targets Helly and his father David. It concerns Modigliani’s “Seated Man with a Cane” (1918), which is claimed by a Frenchman, Philippe Maestracci, who says it belonged to his grandfather, Oscar Stettiner, and was stolen by the Nazis during the second world war.

The earlier case was closed in March 2012 after Maestracci withdrew his complaint against the Helly Nahmad Gallery, seeking the return of the painting. Key to that case, brought in a federal court, was the position of the International Art Center in Geneva, which had purchased the work from Christie’s in 1996 for £2m. The Nahmad lawyer said at the time that “Helly Nahmad Gallery never owned the painting nor is the painting in its possession” – but that it rather belonged to the IAC.

For this new case, Maestracci has enlisted the help of the Canadian Mondex Corporation, which specialises in tracking down and recovering looted works of art. The initial action is in a New York state court, where Mondex and Maestracci aim to discover more information about the IAC. A Mondex spokesman told me: “We hope to uncover the true ownership and control of the International Art Center.”

The painting was exhibited at the Helly Nahmad gallery in 2005, and was sent for sale in 2008 at Sotheby’s with an estimate of $18m-$25m, but failed to find a buyer. Richard Golub, the Nahmads’ lawyer, told Artnet that he had “failed to see any documentation that Stettiner owned the painting” and blamed the publicity over Helly’s court conviction for “blowing the story out of proportion”.

Mayssa Fattouh, director of the Katara Art Center, Doha

Could Bonhams change hands? A number of private equity firms, led by investment bank Greenhill, have submitted first-round bids for the 200-year-old auction house, which reported profits of £25m last year with turnover at an all-time high of £127m. It also unveiled a £30m new saleroom at the top of Bond Street. The bid would value the company at “several hundred million pounds”, according to reports.

Bonhams, as a private company, is tightly held by just two shareholders, Robert Brooks and Dutch collector/ auctioneer Evert Louwman. Brooks has made no secret of his ambitions to rival the duopoly of Sotheby’s and Christie’s. For the moment, he is making no comment on the bids – and neither is Greenhill.

Bigger and bigger: the ambitions of the London-Zurich-New York powerhouse dealer Hauser & Wirth seem to know no bounds. In July it will open a sprawling art centre in a series of farm buildings in Somerset, UK. Now it has revealed the location of Hauser Wirth & Schimmel Los Angeles. Sited in downtown LA, the seven-building complex includes a former flour mill as well as a neoclassical bank building and covers 100,000 square feet, including a vast interior courtyard.

A pop-up show will inaugurate the site next January, but the operation will only be fully operational in early 2016. It offers “a new paradigm for the 21st-century art gallery”, say the organisers, and will be used both for selling and non-selling exhibitions. Hauser & Wirth is no stranger to scale: its former Roxy disco and roller rink in New York extends to 24,700 square feet alone, and the Somerset site includes 100 acres of farmland. Add LA and Iwan Wirth’s empire will be much bigger than Larry Gagosian’s 153,000 square feet of permanent gallery spaces, as calculated by The Art Newspaper – and will still be bigger even when Gagosian’s new Grosvenor Hill space opens . . . 

Georgina Adam is art market editor-at-large of The Art Newspaper

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