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Gauguin painting sells for record $300 million

Paul Gauguin's 1892 oil painting “Nafea Faa Ipoipo" (When Will You Marry?)
Paul Gauguin's 1892 oil painting “Nafea Faa Ipoipo" (When Will You Marry?) Wikimedia Commons

A painting of two Tahitian girls by the French artist Paul Gauguin has been sold for $300 million (€265 million), believed to be the highest price ever paid for a piece of art.

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Unconfirmed reports say the 1892 oil painting, entitled “Nafea Faa Ipoipo" (When Will You Marry?), was sold to a Qatari buyer, underlining the oil-rich Gulf state’s growing influence in the international art market.

Qatar held the previous record for the biggest sum paid for a painting after it purchased Paul Cézanne’s “The Card Players” in 2011 for a reported $250 million (€221 million).

The sale of the Gauguin painting was confirmed by the seller, Switzerland-based collector Rudolf Staechelin, in comments to the New York Times.

Two dealers with knowledge of the sale, who declined to be named, told the newspaper the painting had been purchased by a Qatari buyer, though Staechelin refused to confirm the information.

For nearly half a decade the painting had been on display in the Kunstmuseum in Basel as part of a number of works on loan from the Staechelin Family Trust, which includes a collection of at least 20 major Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works collected by Staechelin’s grandfather in the early 20th century.

Paul Gauguin's 1892 oil painting “Nafea Faa Ipoipo" (When Will You Marry?)
Paul Gauguin's 1892 oil painting “Nafea Faa Ipoipo" (When Will You Marry?)

The museum closed for renovation work at the beginning of February and its doors will remain shut until April 2016. A disagreement over the renovations led to a falling out between Staechelin and the museum, according to various media reports.

However, Staechelin told the New York Times his main motivation for selling was financial.

“The market is very high and who knows what it will be in 10 years,” he said. “Over 90 percent of our assets are paintings hanging for free in the museum. For me they are family history and art. But they are also security and investments.”

Qatar’s cultural ambitions

Though little appreciated during his lifetime, Gauguin’s paintings have become some of the most sought-after Post-Impressionist works, particularly those from his time in Tahiti, where the artist lived for two spells in the 1890s.

The vibrant, intense colours of Nafea Faa Ipoipo, a double-portrait of two Tahitian girls in traditional dress with the lush Polynesian landscape providing the backdrop, is typical of Gauguin’s Tahiti period.

The painting will go on tour as part of a special Gauguin exhibition starting this month in Basel at the Beyeler Foundation before heading to Madrid and Washington, DC. The new buyer will take possession in January 2016, according to Staechelin.

Its fate after that is unclear. Many of the artworks purchased by Qatar in recent years have gone on display in museums in the capital Doha, though others, including Cézanne’s “The Card Players”, have remained out of public view.

The Qatari royal family has spent billions of dollars on Western art as part of ambitions to become a cultural and arts centre capable of rivalling the likes of Paris or Rome.

In 2013 alone, the kingdom’s state-run Qatar Museums Authority headed by Sheikha Mayassa Al Thani, the sister of Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, spent an estimated $1 billion (€ 884 million) on art commissions and purchases, including works by Damien Hirst, Mark Rothko and Francis Bacon.

Not all of its purchases have gone down well with the Qatari public, however. In October 2013 it was forced to remove from the Doha waterfront a sculpture of former French footballer Zinedine Zidane – depicting his infamous headbutt on Italian defender Marco Materazzi in the 2006 World Cup final – following objections from Islamic conservatives.

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