The recent sale of the painting “Icons of the Nile” by Egyptian-Armenian artist Chant Avedissian at a Qatar-hosted auction by Sotheby’s offered reminder of a growing interest by Qatar in Egyptian cultural heritage. At over $1.5 million, the sale comes alongside the Qatari purchase of Seragueddine Palace, ostensibly at over $100 million.
The art purchase was made as part of a wider announced move to uplift Qatar's humble cultural profile. The palace purchase was, on the contrary, shrouded in considerable secrecy. If the painting was the most expensive purchase of Egyptian art by Qatari collections, it was not the first.
A leading Egyptian entrepreneur shared with Ahram Online his account of “a marvelous collection of Islamic era porcelain vessels that are ever so elegantly displayed at the office of a Qatari partner.”
The partner said he bought them from an Egyptian dealer who is making sure that crafts that have been illicitly gained would be safe with those aware of their worth.
A source at the Egyptian Ministry of State for Antiquities agreed that some items went missing from a few museums, including from the collection of the Museum of Islamic Arts, in the wake of the January 25 Revolution when security broke down nationwide.
“We could not know where they ended, but traditionally a good part of the Islamic items stolen or illegally sold end up at the palaces of rich Arab Gulf figures.”
Meanwhile, the Seragueddine Palace, whose sale prompted dismay due to its historic value and venue to key political events in the 20th century, is said to be the third Qatari acquisition (the two others are in Giza and Alexandria) of exotic architectural structures from elite 19th and early-20th century Egypt.
“We had offered my great grandfather’s villa for sale. It is an architectural gem by all accounts and the furniture is simply exotic. It was only when we got an offer from Sheikha Moza (the spouse of the emir of Qatar) that we felt we are getting close to the estimated worth of the villa,” said a co-owner of one of the three property's purchased Qatar. He declined to reveal his identity on the advice of his lawyer.
The same co-owner went on: “The Egyptian mediator bargained too much, and we almost cancelled the sale. But then Sheikha Moza sent an envoy from Qatar and he looked at the place and agreed exactly to the original price we had put. We signed the contract in no time.”
A source at the Ministry of Culture, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Ahram Online that “whatever is private property is private property, and as long as a building is not registered as a monument then we have no say on whether or not it should be sold or demolished.”
The families of the original owners of two houses said that the new Qatari owner is not planning to demolish the buildings but would rather renovate them. In the words of one family member, a French and an Italian architect and designer have already inspected the palace to decide on a renovation plan.
Meanwhile, interested Qatari buyers are already discussing a couple of villas that were once the houses of two prominent Egyptian writers and that are now considerably run down. Qatari negotiations are also ongoing on several state-owned and long-closed cinema theatres.
“These are theatres that have been closed and non-functioning for so many years and they need millions of pounds to be reconstructed and upgraded with modern equipment. We need at least LE5 million for each — maybe more. We don’t have the money,” said a concerned government source.
He suggested that one of these theatres is in Alexandria and two are in downtown Cairo, but declined to say which ones.
The government source said that “there is no legal handicap” to such purchase deals because they fall squarely under the banner of privatisation that allowed for the sale of theatres in the past to Egyptian entrepreneurs.
Keen Qatari interest in Egyptian culture is part of a wider cultural acquisiton drive that Qatari enterpreneurs and members of the ruling family have pursuing worldwide.
In a recent example, Doha managed to get Arab League Secretary General Nabil El-Arabi to agree to send to Qatar close to 200,000 stamps in the collection of the pan-Arab organisation, to be now permanently displayed in a stamps museum in Doha.
The request was presented by Qatar in 2011 under former Arab League head Amr Moussa, but was shelved. A concerned Arab League official said: “There is nothing wrong with sending these stamps to Qatar, because we have original copies of the entire collection.”
The collection includes an original copy of every single stamp that was issued by the 22 member states of the Arab League.