The High Price of Bacon in Qatar: Art and Freedom

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Doha City Center

Qatar is fast becoming an unrivaled seat of culture in the Arab world (photo by ccqatar on Flickr)

Doha City Center

Qatar is fast becoming an unrivaled seat of culture in the Arab world (photo by ccqatar on Flickr)

Reported as the most expensive artwork sold at auction, Francis Bacon’s 1969 triptych, “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” sold for a record $142.4 million at Christie’s in New York on November 12th. A few immediate questions come to mind, some more pressing than others. Why would someone pay such an astronomical sum for a painting? Is it really a record-breaking sale? But what everyone really wanted to know was: Who actually bought it?

The connoisseurs jumped on the first, the analysts on the second, but the third had to wait patiently for the big reveal. Of course, speculation was rife; it’s not as if there are boatloads of buyers – even of HNW heavyweights – with a hundred and forty some million dollars in disposable income.

And what an amazing revelation it was! As I’ve written before, Sheikha Mayassa bint Hamad al-Thani, the sister of Qatar’s emir, is a major player in the world of contemporary art. I even argue that she is an underrated figure in the future of freedom in the Middle East. Now we know that Sheikha Mayassa purchased the painting through the Acquavella Gallery.

We’re already familiar with the fact that the Sheika’s Qatar Museums Authority (QMA) is a big spender, having laid out $250 million for Cezanne’s Card Players. Qatar is fast becoming an unrivaled seat of culture in the Arab world. This development is all the more interesting when we compare the QMA to other Qatari ventures in large scale public relations that are far more dubious. For instance, the 2022 World Cup in Qatar is already plagued by controversy. The inhuman treatment of workers building the flagship stadium certainly doesn’t encourage human rights activists and democracy watchers. And Qatar-based Al Jazeera’s new US network is tanking in spite of massive cash infusions.

The Sheika’s buying spree is building up to the 2016 opening of a national museum in Doha. Even though a definition of contemporary art is famously hard to pin down, one claim seems undeniable: Art Is About Freedom of Expression. Bacon’s paintings are characterized by intense – some would say even morbid – expressiveness. The sitter, Freud, was himself one of the great British artists of the modern period, known for his penetrating observational gifts. In fact, Bacon and Freud were comrades.

Self expression, careful observation, and friendship – this is the stuff of artistic creativity and a free society. And it is therefore priceless.