78 • A Rare Specimen of the Kakapo Parrot

78 • A Rare Specimen of the Kakapo Parrot

New Zealand
Size: 45 cm high

The purpose of including a stuffed Kakapo parrot in the context of this exhibition is to introduce Shaikh Saud al-Thani. Not that he looked like a nearly-extinct stuffed bird; far from it, he was a man of rare elegance. But those of you who take the trouble to read what follows will understand why the Kakapo is a perfect peg on which to hang such a story.

Shaikh Saud was in his early thirties when I first met him in 1997. It was just at the time that he and his cousin the Emir began thinking seriously about making Qatar an important centre for art and culture. Along with other members of the ruling family, they had decided that the brash new tourist developments favoured by other Gulf States were not suited to the rather homely and conserva-tive atmosphere of Qatar, and that they would try to build something of long-term value for the country and, indeed, for the entire region. The two poles that they chose were education and culture. And so, at a relatively early age, Shaikh Saud found himself entrusted with an as-yet undefined programme to turn his country into a new Middle Eastern centre for the arts. The first and most obvious area to look at was Islamic art. Their timing coincided with the appearance at Christie’s of an extraor-dinary bronze fountain-head in the shape of a deer from Cordoba at the height of its Caliphal splendour in the late 10th century. It was initially estimated at £150,000–250,000. At the auction Shaikh Saud bought it for £3,400,000, against the determined bidding of the C.L. David Collection in Copenhagen, and the Cleveland Museum of Art. A powerful new presence had announced itself in the market. Immediately after the sale the price seemed incredible, but now, as with most great works of art after time, it seems a bargain. In the same sale he acquired the Timurid steel mask that was illustrated as the frontispiece for the catalogue of the ‘Turks: A Journey of a Thousand Years, 600–1600’ exhibition at the Royal Academy. It was an impressive debut.

The strategy of paying whatever was needed in public auction for what they wanted in fact served their purpose well. There were the occasional dog-fights with desperate under-bidders – particularly with Shaikh Nasser al-Sabah of Kuwait for Mughal pieces – which resulted in unexpect-edly high prices, but soon both institutional and private buyers gave up the unequal fight, allowing Shaikh Saud to dominate the auction market for several years, with the result that he was usually able to acquire what he wanted for reasonable prices. This aggressive practice in auction was in stark contrast to the way in which he dealt with collectors and dealers, where he was an extremely canny and clever negotiator. He knew very well how to use his weight in the market as it grew. Early in his career I voiced the opinion that, while not suggesting that he should ever pay stupid prices, he should always be generous towards people who brought him things, and not try to screw them as so many others had done before. It would serve him well, and he would always get the first choice of everything. I do not know whether it was due to my advice, or because of his natural instinct, but his way of dealing with people reaped rich rewards. He kept open house in London for whoever had something to offer; he travelled tirelessly to visit every possible source of works of art; and he was unfailingly courteous and charming to everyone who crossed his path. Within eight years Shaikh Saud established himself as one of the most extraordinary and perspicacious figures ever to bestride the art world. The combination of the wealth of Qatar, and his vision as it developed, opened up the unique possibility of creating a hub of universal culture in an area that had never known such a thing; of creating institutions that were capable of bridging the gap in many creative ways with the West; of laying down a cultural wealth for the future benefit of his own country. Alas, little of his vision has been, or will be, realised. Since Shaikh Saud was obliged to resign from his position as Chairman of the National Council for Arts, Culture and Heritage, the future of his many projects, apart from the Museum of Islamic Art, remains uncertain. Probably nothing further of what he planned will be built, and the institutions that do emerge are unlikely to function according to their full potential. The story of this disaster needs to be told, because there are two different versions. One is the accountants’ version, which has become common currency as justification for the elements in the Qatar establishment who destroyed this extraordinary man, throwing away the cultural future of their country in the process. The other version is the purpose of this short essay.

‘It’s not hard to work out who the great architects are, but it is hard to get them to take me seriously’, Shaikh Saud complained one day, adding, ‘they have no idea where Qatar is, they don’t want to work in Arab countries because of their reputation for being difficult and incompetent, and anyway they have more offers of work than they can fulfil from everywhere else in the world.’ This remark was occasioned by the refusal of I.M. Pei to accept the project to design a museum for Islamic art in Doha. The refusal was exquisitely polite: after their meeting in New York Mr. Pei sent an orchid to Shaikh Saud, the significance of which he immediately understood. Thereafter, ‘sending a flower’ to someone became, in Shaikh Saud’s vocabulary, the code for a polite refusal.

The route to I.M. Pei began with the international architectural competition launched to find an architect for the Museum of Islamic Art in 1996. Since no-one in Doha had experience of organising such an event, the Aga Khan Foundation was approached for help, and undertook to supply both the organisation and jury for the competition. Among those who competed was Zaha Hadid. Among the jury was Luis Monreal, the director of La Caixa Cultural Foundation based in Barcelona, which, under his direc-tion, had become the most dynamic organisation of its kind in Europe. With his usual flair, Shaikh Saud realised that Luis’ experience and knowledge were of value to him, and that he could learn much of what he needed from him. Luis, for his part, was unusually impressed by the intelli-gence and seriousness of Shaikh Saud, and over the next four years generously devoted as much time as he could spare to providing guidance and advice where needed, as well as introducing him to many architects and artists around the world.

The architectural competition was won by Ghassan Badran, an architect of the Hasan Fathi school, who was based in Amman. But, by this time, Shaikh Saud’s hori-zons has widened, he had met a number of important architects, including I.M. Pei, through Luis, and his vision of what he could do for his country had taken wing. Wherever he travelled at this time, his room was piled high with every conceivable book and review to do with contemporary architecture. He took the difficult decision, from a personal point of view because he liked Ghassan Badran, and from an administrative point of view because of the financial implications, to reverse the result of the competition. In this context, the rebuff from I.M. Pei was a serious disappointment.

In the middle of all of this, Shaikh Saud went to Japan, to visit Arata Isozaki, another architect to whom Luis Monreal had introduced him, and to see the Miho Museum, Pei’s extraordinary masterpiece on a moun-tain-top near Kyoto. This visit to the Miho had a profound effect, because it confirmed his vision of collecting masterpieces, and made him absolutely determined to get Pei to design his museum. He arranged a meeting in Paris with Pei, Luis Monreal, and the Emir and his wife, Shaikhs Moza, calculating that his cousin’s charisma and interest would count. He then set up another meeting in New York for which he asked me to produce a catalogue of the collection as it existed, in a single copy for Mr. Pei, to show that they were serious. By this time he had acquired the collection of Jassem Homaizi, the finest group of Islamic objects in private hands, and with other extraordinary pieces he had collected, it was not difficult to produce an impressive catalogue. The problem was time. There was less than a month until the meeting, and most of the month was taken up with travelling. This time the meeting in New York was a success, and Pei was convinced. He visited Egypt, and later Tunisia, to look at Islamic mon-uments and then started working on the project. For Shaikh Saud it was a personal triumph, to have brought to Qatar one of the world’s greatest architects. He realised that the difference in cost of building an indifferent edifice or an architectural masterpiece was not so great; the difficulty was to persuade the greatest architects to work for him. And it was here that his peculiar genius came into play. His uncanny presence and intelligence impressed itself upon the people that interested him, architects and artists, whom he continually visited on his travels. Once a project began, he involved himself in every detail.

For Shaikh Saud, Pei was the great classical master, and Isozaki the poet of architecture. The latter’s magical quality fascinated him. They travelled around India together looking at Moghul monuments, and after the trip Isozaki presented him with a book of his sketches of the places they had visited. Shaikh Saud commissioned Isozaki to design a house for him in Qatar, which, after five years of close collaboration, emerged as a model which was quite unlike anything that had been imagined before. More like a sculpture, or a space-ship, it had many unusual features: such as a dome designed by Anish Kapoor over a swimming pool patterned by David Hockney, and flight cages for Amazonian parrots. As the project developed, Shaikh Saud’s plans for the house began to change. He saw it less as a place to live in, more as a building that should be open to the public. A private museum was incorporated to house a small collection of world masterpieces from different cultures. He engaged twenty-seven contempo-rary designers, giving them each a room, believing that a museum of the best designs of a period would be both useful and educative for the people of Qatar, who other-wise could have no access to such concepts. Sadly this project was never realised, along with its sculpture garden on which he had lavished so much care, commissioning works from Chilida – his last great monumental sculpture – Serra, Cristo, Koons and Kapoor, among others.

A defining moment for Shaikh Saud took place when he entered Jean-Claude Ciancimino’s shop in the Pimlico Road in London. There, lining one wall were the two bookcases made by Ruhlman for the Palace of Indore. He looked at them, asked the price, negotiated briefly, and bought them. He then asked what exactly they were. He had no knowledge of Art Deco, and had never heard of Ruhlman, or of Indore. Some years later in New York Ronald Lauder told him that in his opinion they were the greatest examples of Art Deco furniture in the world, that he had been negotiating to buy them and regretted missing them. Shaikh Saud’s subsequent impact on the Art Deco market was, as usual, spectacular, particularly for anything connected with Indore, but the really interesting impact came from the spectre of the Maharajah of Indore on Shaikh Saud. The Maharajah was in many ways the ultimate aesthete, who in 1930 built the supreme Art Deco monument, his palace in Indore, designed by Muthesius and furnished by Ruhlman and Eileen Gray. But beyond this, Shaikh Saud became fascinated by the personality of the Maharajah, whose pursuit of perfection and refinement became a model he wished to understand and follow. Curiously, there is a striking physical resem-blance between the two of them. He visited the palace twice to absorb its lessons, in spite of its gloomy transfor-mation into the local tax compliance office, and doggedly sought out the Maharajah’s family and descendants to find out more about the man, and see what was left. The result of this foray into Art Deco and Indore was remarkable: an incredible collection of furniture; a sublimely elegant orange-and-black Bentley; the perfect ruby ring set by Cartier; the family photographs by Man Ray; and above all the greatest of all Art Deco paintings, the two portraits of the Maharajah by Boutet de Montval, the ‘white portrait’ in Indian dress and the ‘black portrait’ in tails. Muthesius also designed a yacht for the Maharajah, and a boat-house which was never built. Shaikh Saud acquired the designs for the boat-house and planned to have it built by the sea in Qatar to house the entire Art Deco collection, for public view and as a tribute to someone he admired. Another project which will not be realised.

Shaikh Saud’s fascination for every aspect of the Maharajah of Indore’s life had several unexpected conse-quences. Brancusi stayed at Indore, and before the contents of the palace were sold off, there were two versions of his most famous sculpture, ‘Bird in Space’, on view there. It was this information which sparked Shaikh Saud’s interest in 20th-century and contemporary sculpture. Of equal importance was the Maharajah’s relationship with Man Ray, who also visited Indore, and which focused Shaikh Saud’s attention on photography. When the first part of the extraordinary Jammes collection of photographs came up for sale at Sotheby’s in London, he bought 80 percent of the sale, and went on to acquire a number of other outstanding groups of photographs. In a relatively short time he assembled one of the finest collections of photographs in the world. He added the Spira collection of photographic equipment and paraphernalia, second only to the Kodak-Eastman holdings. He visited every dealer and scoured auctions around the world, in one case buying every lot of a Christie’s South Kensington sale of cameras. He located one of the rare cameras built for the Daguerre brothers, and found a way to get prototypes of the most sophisticated cameras used on satellites. Once he judged that the collection had reached a critical mass, he persuaded the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava to design a museum to house it. The result was a sublime lotus-bud shaped building, which would have added another architectural masterpiece to the Doha corniche. Now, alas, if it is ever built, it will not be in Doha.

His strategy with photography, as in all areas that interested him, was not merely a smash-and-grab raid on the market. He wanted to understand it, and in order to do so made it his job to get to know as many photogra-phers as possible. With some, such as David Bailey, Richard Avedon, Francois-Marie Banier and Helmut Newton, he established on-going, friendly relationships. He got to know Irving Penn, and, extraordinarily, managed to persuade Henri Cartier-Bresson to come to London and take his photograph, in spite of the fact that at their first meeting in Paris, Cartier-Bresson claimed not to have used a camera for twenty years. It was one of the areas in which he opened up a lively dialogue with Lord Rothschild, who visited him in Doha, and began to develop the idea of creating a three-way relationship with Somerset House in London, and the Getty Museum in California, to promote photography through shared exhibitions and publications. At the local level, he promoted a photography club, organising exhibitions, encouraging new membership, and making available the resources of his amazing collections.

The visit to the Miho museum had also had a powerful impact on Shaikh Saud’s interests. There, for the first time, he saw the silver Horus inlaid with lapis-lazuli which is the museum’s emblem. David Bailey, who accompanied him on his trip to Japan, took a revealing photograph of him through the display case as he contem-plated the silver Horus, his face a picture of abject misery that such a masterpiece was forever beyond his reach. Even so, the encounter spurred him to take a serious interest in Egyptian art, which he pursued with his usual unflagging vigour. His approach to learning was quite unlike the procedures that most people adopt. He did not read much, because he found English difficult in its written form, and little that he needed existed in Arabic. He bought every book on the subject that he could find, and then looked endlessly at the pictures, over and over again. Wherever he travelled the books accompanied him. His quite remarkable visual memory – he never seemed to forget anything he has seen – coupled with an uniquely acute eye for art, enabled him to grasp a subject, even one as complicated as Egyptian art, in an astonishingly short time. Rather like Richard Burton with languages. It was not, of course, only through books. He visited museums continually, comparing everything he could find in all the major collections. Visiting The Egyptian Museum in Cairo with him was a surprising experience, because he knew, among all its prolific chaos, where to locate all its masterpieces. He befriended academics and experts around the world, and had the capacity to draw out of them their knowledge, like a serum that he could then inject into himself. He got to know all the dealers, to place his finger on the pulse of the market-place, and to plot where masterpieces still lurked to which he could gain access. One of his successes was to position himself to benefit from the misfortunes of Robin Symes, and acquire from the Receiver the cream of his Egyptian collection. His uncanny resemblance to the Pharaoh Akhnaton often drew humorous comment, particularly when he stood in front of one of his statues, perhaps one of the reasons for his fascination with the 18th dynasty.

His relentless search for Egyptian masterpieces in private hands inevitably led him to the bronze bust of Amenmhat III in the collection of George Ortiz. He went to Geneva to meet him, and see his collection, and after we left I asked him what he would choose if he could take away just one thing. ‘Ah, if I could have one thing that Mr. Ortiz possesses, it would be his eyes,’ was Shaikh Saud’s reply. Thereafter he continually analysed the catalogue of the collection that George had given him, until he knew it by heart and had compared each piece with all the other known comparable examples. It opened his mind to the value of the juxtaposition of so many cultures, and an appreciation of the rare ability to acquire masterpieces in all of them. The idea that Qatar could eventually buy the collection began to form in his mind, although at his most optimistic he thought it was probably impossible. On the one hand it meant dealing with George Ortiz, and on the other doing it on behalf of his country, which he knew for the next several generations would have no clue as to what it represented. Nevertheless he persevered. He held that there was great advantage to be gained from buying a collection formed by one of the most perspicacious of all collectors over a period of fifty years, and something that could never be matched again. ‘It’s like buying someone’s life,’ he remarked, ‘and anyway I don’t have fifty years to spare.’ In the context of the cultural programme he was developing it made perfect sense, even if it took many years for the inestimable value of such a collection to be under-stood by his fellow-countrymen. He eventually hit on the idea of borrowing a dozen masterpieces to display in the temporary exhibition hall of the Islamic Museum when it opened, as a way of introducing the collection and estab-lishing its presence in Qatar. It now seems a pipe-dream, but one which in his hands had a chance of being realised. Compared to the cost of sophisticated military aeroplanes, the price of art is nothing, and by the time that such military hardware has become redundant, the value of a great art collection has become incomparably greater, not just in financial terms, but for what it represents for a country. Tourists do not visit Paris to look at its tanks, or admire France for its fighter-planes.

Another muse for Shaikh Saud was the Comtesse de Behague. Although she died before the Second World War, a small part of her collection of antiquities was auctioned by Sotheby’s in Monte Carlo in 1985 In the course of his relentless analysis of every part of the art market that interested him, he came across the catalogue of the sale, and was fascinated. He knew about Stoclet, Cartier, and other collectors of their ilk, but saw that among them all she had the unique eye. He made it his business to find out as much as he could about her; he met her descendants in France; he visited the house she had created in the rue Saint-Dominique in Paris, with its eccentric décor and theatre, now the Roumanian Embassy; and then commis-sioned a young scholar to produce a book on her remarka-ble collection, which, surprisingly, had never been done. His efforts to locate any of her great works of art in private hands led him to Ronald Lauder, who owned her Ostrogothic gold eagle broach, then on loan to the Metropolitan Museum. After his visit to Lauder’s extraor-dinary apartment in New York, where one is overwhelmed by the array of paintings by Cézanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Kandinsky, a series of sculptures by Brancusi – among many other things – I asked him, as usual, what he most liked. He answered that of all he had seen, there was a small painting of a black square in a white border that seemed to him the best thing. He had no idea of what this 1915 painting by Malevitch represented, but he had picked up on arguably the single most important work of art that Mr. Lauder owned.

Surprisingly, it was not art that most interested Shaikh Saud, but the natural world; birds, animals and plants, of which he had great knowledge, and to which his farm outside Doha was dedicated. It is shaded by a vast planta-tion of palm trees of every conceivable type, of which he knew the origin of each species as well as its Latin name. He once told me that after much searching he had found out that a farmer in Sri Lanka possessed a particularly rare palm tree that he had been unable to locate anywhere. He flew to Colombo, hired a car and eventually found the farmer deep in the countryside, with the splendid tree growing next to his little house. Over a cup of tea he struck a deal with the farmer to buy his tree. The farmer went into his house, and as he sat admiring his new prize he suddenly heard a terrible wailing coming from inside the house. After a while the farmer emerged in an obvious state of distress. He had told his wife, thinking he was bringing news of their great good fortune. She, on the other hand, refused to accept the sale of the tree, in the shade of which they sat every day of their lives, and she would not accept living there without it. And so Shaikh Saud returned to Qatar empty-handed.

Around the plantation are large open pens for gazelles, more than twelve hundred in all, representing almost every known variety. Many of them he had caught himself in expeditions that he mounted in Somalia, in spite of the danger – they were shot at on several occasions – and extreme discomfort. The reason for these hazardous expeditions was that he feared that the poverty resulting from the political turmoil in the region would result in more and more gazelles being killed for their meat, and that some species, like the Bera, would soon be extinct. He hoped to build up a breeding stock so that eventually, when conditions improved, these threatened species could be released back into the wild. The breeding programme, particularly for the Bera, has proved extremely complicat-ed, but overseen by a permanent veterinary staff from Germany has been uniquely successful. He confessed one day that he thought the landscape in northern Somalia was the most beautiful in the world, and that he continual-ly dreamed of going back there.

His great passion, beyond even palm trees and gazelles, was for Amazonian parrots. At the farm there are huge flight-cages, where you walk through tropical jungle and see brilliant macaws flashing through the foliage, and hear the haunting calls of many exotic birds. Among the parrots, the one that concerned him most was the Spix macaw, an exquisite bird on the brink of extinction. In order to have the right to own such a bird, he succeed-ed in having his farm officially recognised by the World Wildlife Fund, and then assembled as many survivors as he could find around the world – principally from a rare bird dealer in the Philippines – in order to breed them without risk of extinction through in-breeding. Originally he wanted to acquire a large tract of Amazonian jungle to preserve the species, but came to the conclusion that he could not trust those who would have to be in charge of the project. His devotion to these birds is such that he once flew to New Zealand, and then took a boat to an outlying island in spite of his fear of the sea, climbed to the top of a peak, and sat there all night under cold drizzle in order to feed a few grapes to a flightless Kakapo parrot, of which only a few dozen remain. The next day he returned to Qatar, delighted. He was so fond of his parrots that he invited the pre-eminent painter of birds, Elizabeth Butterworth, on numerous occasions to his farm to paint their portraits, following in the great tradition of natural history patronage.

His fascination for the natural world had two specific effects on his collecting. He assembled what must now be the greatest private collection of natural history books in the world, which he intended eventually to house in the National Library of Qatar, and which few institutions apart from the British Library can match. As usual, he was not content with just any copy of a work, he wanted the best. He trawled through his vast collection of auction catalogues reaching into the distant past to get to grips with the historical scope of the market; he was in constant touch with every major dealer in the field; he visited libraries, collectors and academics. The result, arrayed on industrial shelving in his warehouse at the farm, was astonishing; their princely leather bindings glowed from the shelves, and included such treasures as Lord Bute’s immaculate Audubon with its purpose-built display-case (purchased separately), and original watercolours by Audubon, Redoute and Barraband, the latter, in Shaikh Saud’s opinion, the greatest of all bird illustrators.

Fossils and minerals became the second focus of his attention on the natural world, and part of a three-pronged project. He thought that it would be possible to completely redesign his farm, and make it accessible, on a part-time basis at least, to the public and particularly to school-children. For this transformation he had Zaha Hadid in mind, whose work he admired, and whose imagination, he thought, could produce an extraordinary solution for a zoological-botanical ensemble in the desert. Secondly, he wanted a botanical garden along the lines of the Eden Project for the corniche in Doha, in the park behind the Islamic museum. He discussed the idea with I.M. Pei, and asked for a design, since it would be in close proximity to the Islamic museum.

He had, as yet, no site or architect in mind for the fossils and minerals, but in the interim organised an extraordinary exhibition in the autumn of 2004 to show a part of what he had collected. Its title was ‘Lost Worlds’, curated by Errol Fuller, dedicated to the children of Qatar, and accompanied by a catalogue with a foreword by Sir Neil Chambers, Director of the Natural History Museum in London. He wrote that the publication and exhibition were ‘remarkable evidence of the extraordinary collection of natural history objects that has been built up by Qatar during recent years. Over a period of a few years, a collec-tion of international status has been brought together, covering many aspects of the natural world…There is an unparalleled series of specimens of extinct birds and an amazing collection of bird illustrations….’ One illustration on view was of the Mascarene Parrot painted by Jacques Barraband circa 1800. The species has been extinct for almost 200 years, and the only two stuffed specimens, in Paris and Vienna, have long ago faded. This remains the best record of how this beautiful parrot actually looked in life. The striking aspect of the exhibition, noticed by everyone who visited it, was the outstanding beauty of all its exhibits. Fossilised sea-lilies, ammonites, trilobites, Irish elk horns, a huge mammoth tusk and Dodo bones were among the exhibits rightly presented as works of art around the centrepiece of the exhibition, a 28-metre long skeleton of a diplodocus.

It is to be hoped that in due course an exhibition will be mounted to show the quality and extent of Shaikh Saud’s collections. In the meantime it is worth pointing out the influence that he has had in the wider Arab world, although without his particular genius it is unlikely that any project will match his vision. When I first knew him he told me he was in a hurry, because he would not live to be fifty. That he was correct is a cause of great sadness for everyone that knew him. He was an extraordinary man, I’ve never known anyone like him.