The man behind the multi-million dollar art business

Michael Jeha, managing director of Christie’s Middle East, looks at the development of the region’s first online auctions, expansion into new frontiers such as Saudi Arabia and why some of the Middle East’s bloodiest areas are also some of its biggest artistic hotspots

Qatar’s Sheikha Al Mayassa Bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani has a real passion for art. Luckily for her, and the Middle East’s growing community of art fans, she also has a budget to match and earlier this year she was revealed as the biggest new player to emerge onto the international art scene in recent years. According to the New York Times newspaper, she is spending the Gulf state’s petrodollars on much sought-after masterpieces “at a level never seen before”.

Her artistic pursuits are the result of her appointment as chairwoman of the Qatar Museums Authority, the agency which oversees the creation of a new home for the National Museum of Qatar, as well as the establishing of the Museum of Islamic Art and Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art.

The amount being spent by the 30-year-old, whose brother replaced her father as Emir when there was a changeover of power earlier this year, has been widely touted as “mind-boggling” by those in the industry. To put it into perspective, Sheikha Al Mayassa’s budget is estimated to be $1bn a year, far outstripping other major museums such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, which spent $32m on artworks in 2011-2012.

All of which is music to the ears of Michael Jeha, managing director of Middle East operations for Christie’s, the London auction house founded in 1766 and which reported global sales last year of $6.27bn.

“We are not allowed to discuss individuals or our buyers,” Jeha says when Sheikha Al Mayassa’s name is eventually brought up. “But it is well-known that Qatar is becoming an increasingly important player in the market and is building impressive collections, so there is a very strong art programme being built there.”

Members of the Qatari royal family have long been major clients of Christie’s and the two have had close ties in recent years, especially when it was rumoured three years ago the auction house was set to become Doha’s latest big trophy acquisition.

Qatar’s former emir, Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani, told the Financial Times newspaper in 2010 he would be interested in making a formal bid to current owners Groupe Artémis, the holding company owned by French billionaire François-Henri Pinault.

While Qatar did not get its hands on Christie’s, it did snap up its long-serving chairman. It was revealed in 2011 Edward J Dolman, chairman of Christie’s International, was leaving the company after 27 years and was moving to join the board of the Qatar Museums Authority and advice Sheikha Al Mayassa.

While Qatar may be making the headlines, it is still Dubai which is seeing the day-to-day business and Christie’s is forging ahead with its expansion in the emirate. “We have been here since 2006 and we have held auctions since then. We have sold over $235m worth of art in the region in Dubai and we hold two seasons a year, in April and October,” says Jeha.

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