Reportedly, in 2011, the nation of Qatar purchased Paul Cézanne’s painting “The Card Players” for more than $250 million from the estate of Greek shipping magnate George Embiricos in a private deal (Figure 1). As a result, “The Card Players” became the most expensive artwork sold in the world. Only four museums own versions of “The Card Players”: the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, the Courtauld Institute in London, and the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia. With one expensive purchase, Qatar entered an exclusive circle of some of the most established cultural institutions in the world.
Buyers of fine art traditionally hailed from Europe and the United States, but the current art market is marked by increased buyer interest from the rest of the world, as indicated by auction turnovers (Figure 5). As foreign millionaires run out of real estate properties and yachts to acquire, they turn to fine art. In 2007, buyers spending more than $500,000 at Sotheby’s auctions hailed from 58 different countries compared to just 36 countries in 2003. Countries and individuals acquire fine art as an indication of their new wealth. This phenomenon occurred in the United States in the early 20th century as American millionaires began to amass wealth. In 1931, Andrew Mellon bought 20 old masters paintings from the Soviet government for $7 million with the intent of starting a national museum in Washington, D.C.
Today, four new museums in the United Arab Emirates and a new contemporary art museum in Qatar will absorb 400 to 500 works annually for the next ten to fifteen years. In 2007, Abu Dhabi paid The Louvre $525 million for the right to use the name “Louvre Abu Dhabi Museum” and $675 million to loan 300 works of art for periods of six months to five years. Whereas Japanese collectors of the 1980s exclusively invested in French Impressionists, today’s emerging international buyers have diverse taste, especially in the artworks of their countrymen.
China especially has seen growing dominance in the art sector alongside its economic growth. Chinese artists are now some of the most famous and sought after contemporary artists in the world. In 2006, Sotheby’s and Christie’s sold $190 million of Asian contemporary art, most of it originating in China, compared to just $22 million two years ago. In 2011, China experienced a 49 percent jump in art auction revenue compared to the year before. In 2012, 43 percent of contemporary art auction revenue originated in Asia. China was the dominant player, with 90 percent of the Asian market. In comparison, Europe accounted for 30 percent of contemporary art auction revenue while the United States only accounted for 26 percent. Chinese buyers include recently wealthy businessmen and investors who have sought profitable art as a way to diversify investments. Conversely, the globalization of the secondary market for modern and contemporary art has increased confidence in art as an investment.