The World’s Biggest Art Collector Is Also Interested In Coins

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by Ursula Kampmann

October 27, 2011 – The beautiful stater from Thurion was estimated moderately at 6,000-8,000 pound sterling ($9,575-$12,767) before it went to auction at Morton & Eden’s on October 24, 2011, as no 15. This piece is of quite an extraordinary provenance. It is from the legendary Kunstfreund collection and was sold for 30,000 Swiss Francs in 1974 at the peak of the coin boom. In 2011 some collectors might have been disposed to pay that prize again for this gem. They were outstripped. Sheik Saud bin Mohammed bin Ali al-Thani went up to 85,000 pound sterling ($135,659) to swallow the coin up in his collection.

Nowadays it has become an usual scenario. The lion’s share of the top auctions of ancient material – whether tetradrachms or fractions – goes to the bidder from Qatar. According to a preliminary addition of Hadrien Rambach, a London-based coin-advisor, who was attending the sale, the sheik bought 41 lots for over 1 million pounds (more than $1.5 million) during the recent auction of Morton & Eden. That included 70,000 pound sterling ($111,719) for a tetradrachm of the Aitna Master from Naxos, 40,000 ($63,839) for an archaic didrachm from Dikaia and 140,000 ($223,439) for an archaic double shekel from Tyre, the last two objects being also from the Kunstfreund Collection. Altogether we are talking about peanuts for the sheik. Only recently ARTnews chose him the biggest collector of 2011. His fine taste is lauded, while dealers will appraise his determination and financial exhaustlessness.

In June 2011 an article published in the Independent summarized the career of the enthusiastic collector: Until 2005 al-Thani had acquired artistic treasures for a new museum center in the rich oil country on the authority of his cousin, the Emir of Qatar. His purchases ranged from important photographies of Man Ray and Alfred Stieglitz to an egg of Fabergé to a complete edition of the delicately illustrated book on America’s birds by Audubon; whatever might make dream the passionates of art, al-Thani brought it to Qatar. But then a scandal arose. He was placed under house arrest because allegedly he had presented faked invoices, aided by a London dealer, and had thus diverted funds of the state for the benefit of his private collection. But the resentment quickly passed by. Just one year later one could see the sheik again attending auctions.

Today he is also well known at numismatic auctions. But he is not very popular among collectors. Many of them are so annoyed that they consider quitting collecting. They lost pleasure in preparing diligently an auction – since anyway they leave empty-handed every time. Of course this is an unpleasant situation because the smaller becomes the coin collector’s basis of people, the more susceptible to crisis become the prizes.

However, those who are present in the métier for a long time, can recollect the time when the Hunt brothers tried to dominate the market. The Hunt brothers had also a fortune at hand based on oil and put together by their ancestors. Time will tell if Qatar’s oil springs will bubble more richly than the monetary sources of the Hunt brothers. In the 1990s though, collectors were able to repurchase the Hunt treasures in a whole series of auctions at Sotheby’s – for a fraction of what the Hunt brothers once had paid for them.

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