Sheikh Saud Al-Thani, the world’s biggest collector, embezzled millions of pounds from the State of Qatar using invoices issued by London dealer Oliver Hoare. The Sheikh, who has been under investigation for misappropriating public funds, used documents bearing the letterhead of Mr Hoare’s company, Oliver Hoare Limited, to obtain fraudulent payments from Qatar’s National Council for Culture, Arts and Heritage (NCCAH) while serving as its chairman.
Last month we revealed that three invoices issued in 2002 by Mr Hoare’s company to Sheikh Saud showed an extraordinarily large mark-up on the recent auction price of the objects they related to. Further investigations have revealed that these invoices were used as part of a scam to obtain Qatari State money.
The surprise is that Sheikh Saud, who was arrested in February, was already the owner of the three items covered by Mr Hoare’s documents: a 17th-century jade pendant made for Shah Jahan, a 217-carat Mughal carved emerald, and an 18th-century diamond and emerald turban ornament.
The Art Newspaper has established that the Sheikh, a cousin of the Emir of Qatar, bought the objects at Christie’s and Sotheby’s for just over £3.3 million in September and October 2001. On 6 August 2002 Mr Hoare issued his invoices to Sheikh Saud for the three items. These show a price inflation of nearly £16 million to a cumulative total of just over £19 million.
The three objects these invoices relate to are now in the collection of the NCCAH which sent two of them on loan to an exhibition in Frankfurt earlier this year. We understand that the established procedure for all items acquired by the Qatari State is that they are paid for before they are formally admitted into the collections, so Mr Hoare’s invoices were presumably settled.
Oliver Hoare’s exact role in the affair remains unclear. He did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Oliver Hoare Limited is a small company and is only required to publish abbreviated accounts at Companies House. An examination of these shows that the £19 million referred to in the invoices does not appear to have been included in the accounts for the appropriate period.
A considerable number of other invoices issued to the Sheikh by Mr Hoare are now being examined by investigators in Qatar as part of the official enquiry into the Sheikh’s spending. Auditors are also looking at paperwork submitted by other dealers in London and Paris.
One London dealer who spoke to The Art Newspaper on condition of anonymity said that Sheikh Saud had asked him to produce a fraudulent invoice for one object. He refused.
Sheikh Saud served as chairman of the NCCAH from 1997 until he was abruptly dismissed in February. During that time he was responsible for purchasing art for five museums planned for the capital Doha. He simultaneously bought for his own collection, by some estimates spending a total of nearly $1 billion in the process.
The investigation into Sheikh Saud’s spending began last summer. In February Qatari auditors confronted the Sheikh in his London home. The Art Newspaper understands that when presented with the evidence they had accumulated, the Sheikh confessed to financial misdealings. The Emir was immediately notified and he promptly dismissed his cousin from the NCCAH. A few days later the Sheikh voluntarily returned to Qatar and was arrested upon arrival at the airport.
The Sheikh remained in prison for just over two months but is now believed to have been released. The Art Newspaper understands that he is unlikely to be charged and has probably struck a deal with the Emir to avoid further prosecution. This may involve the transfer of parts of the Sheikh’s extensive private collection to the ownership of the NCCAH.
After the Sheikh’s arrest, his personal holdings of art were impounded both in London, where they were moved to the Qatari Embassy in South Audley Street, and in Qatar, where they have been transferred from Al-Wabra, the Sheikh’s family estate outside Doha, to NCCAH warehouses.
Sheikh Saud could not be contacted at his London address or his family estate at Al Wabra. No one at the Qatari Embassy in London or the NCCAH was available for comment.
The Art Newspaper estimates on good evidence that Sheikh Saud’s eccentric and diverse personal collection is worth around $450 million. It includes: an exceptional group of Egyptian, Greek, and Roman antiquities such as the Jenkins Venus bought for £7.9 million, setting a new world record price for an antiquity; a library of natural history books and manuscripts described by one expert as “the best in the world” which includes a first edition of Audubon’s Birds of America, bought for $8.8 million; a large collection of jewellery and decorative art with objects such as the Winter Egg by Fabergé, a 60-carat Indian diamond from the Golconda mines, and armour originally made for the French king Henry IV; Art Deco furniture designed by Jacques-Emile Ruhlmann that belonged to the Maharaja of Indore; a collection of dinosaur skeletons, fossils, and taxidermied rare birds; an extensive collection of photographs; textiles, mainly Coptic; a collection of luxury cars, and one of the largest private holdings of bicycles in the world.
The Sheikh also owns contemporary art including a sculpture by Anish Kapoor and watercolour portraits of himself by David Hockney as well as 50 drawings of Egypt by the British artist.
The newly appointed chairman of the NCCAH, Dr Mohammed Kafoud, has now instructed his curators to inventory the collections in their care. Dr Kafoud’s priority is to document both the State collections amassed by Sheikh Saud and his private holdings, and to distinguish between the two.
Our revelations of the Sheikh’s financial misdealings have divided the London art world. Many dealers who have sold work to the Sheikh insist that he is the victim of a smear campaign.
Clients of Mr Hoare defend him. Speaking to The Art Newspaper, Kjeld von Folsach, director of the David Collection, a museum in Copenhagen said: “For years it was difficult to buy at auction and we mainly worked with important dealers of Islamic art, among them Oliver Hoare, with whom our institution has had a fine cooperation for 25 years. We consider him one of the most serious dealers in the Islamic field.”