Recently, I wrote about the auction of a remarkable Mughal wine flask (Robert Clive's Stolen Treasures, April 29). An unnamed Middle Eastern buyer drove the price up and snatched this item away from the Victoria and Albert Museum, which had been displaying the flask but had never owned it. Thanks to a link from ArtsJournal, I read an article (Sheikh Saud's London spending spree, June 6) by Georgina Adam and Lucian Harris in The Art Newspaper:
In April, The Art Newspaper brought you an exclusive interview with Sheikh Saud al-Thani of Qatar [Meet Sheikh Saud Al Thani of Qatar, by Georgina Adam]. Now we reveal the voracity with which he is collecting for the five museums he is building in the Qatari capital, Doha. A team of London agents working for the Sheikh bought 350 of the top lots in last month's Islamic sales, spending well in excess of £15 million [$27.5 million]. The objects are all destined for the Museum of Islamic Art under construction in Doha to the designs of I.M. Pei, the Chinese-American architect coaxed out of retirement by Sheikh Saud. With its completion scheduled for 2006, the Islamic museum will be the first of the five to open, and the Sheikh's determination to buy the very best for its collection is having an extraordinary effect on the Islamic art market.This article includes a picture of some of Sheikh Saud's recent purchases, including the wine flask in question. All of this makes me happy for so many reasons. First, it is much better to spend large sums of money on creating a cultural institution like a museum than on bankrolling fundamentalist madrassas. (If the Saudis want to get in on the museum action, there are major collections in Cairo and Baghdad, of significant importance to the history of the Arab world, that would be happy to accept some serious coin.) Second, buying the artworks in this way gives those who stake a British claim on these objects little room to argue about the fairness of removing them from Great Britain. Someone sold them, and someone bought them, which is a whole hell of a lot less ambiguous morally than how Robert Clive came to possess them. (If only the Athenians could somehow pay an outrageous sum of money to get back the Elgin Marbles. Perhaps the Turks, who endangered the Parthenon by using it as an armory, or the Venetians who actually fired upon the place when they knew it was a storehouse for explosives, should have to pay an auction price for the marbles to go back to the Acropolis.) Third, these things are going to be visible to the public, even if it is in an unlikely place like Doha, and not in an oil baron's bedroom somewhere. Now, I ask Sheikh Saud to make sure that his museums have good Web sites with excellent images of their collections, because people here in the United States need to learn more about the glories of Islamic art.