RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Can a country just buy its way into the elite world of art collecting and become a global mecca for art buyers? Well, the Gulf nation of Qatar is hoping the answer is yes. The oil-rich country has purchased a Paul Cezanne painting for more than $250 million. That is the highest amount ever paid for a work of art. Alexandra Peers recently wrote about the sale in Vanity Fair and she joins me by phone from New York. Alexandra, thanks for being with us.
ALEXANDRA PEERS: Thank you, Rachel.
MARTIN: Can you describe this painting for us? It's called The Card Players.
PEERS: It is a beauty. It shows two gentlemen playing cards. It was painted at the turn of the 20th century, about 1900 - a little earlier. And it's considered important because when everybody else was painting rich socialites and landscapes, Cezanne decided peasants were important.
MARTIN: And $250 million? How extraordinary is that price tag?
PEERS: Well, it's a lot of houses, isn't it, Rachel?
MARTIN: It's an awful lot of houses.
PEERS: In terms of art, the highest price ever paid publicly for an art work was a beautiful Picasso portrait for $106 million of his naked mistress. So, this is more than double the public price paid at auction.
MARTIN: Was it expected to fetch that much or did this come as a surprise to the art world?
PEERS: I think that many people had been chasing this painting for years. The fellow who owned it, a Greek shipping magnate, George Embiricos, wouldn't lend it to anyone. You couldn't really see it. It was sort of a legend for its inaccessibility. And that made it all the more in demand. So, when he finally passed away, everybody knew it was going to go for a great sum of money, but who thought it would ever go for this? Nobody.
MARTIN: Can you tell us when did the sale actually take place?
PEERS: It took place early in 2011, and details are just leaking out now.
MARTIN: So, Qatar is hoping by securing this particular painting, which you say does carry a lot of cache, the global art market will come to its doorstep expecting to see more of the same?
PEERS: Well, this is the big jewel. But they've been buying for about a dozen years and buying at the very, very top end of the market. They have a complete set of the Audubon bird prints. They have bejeweled daggers. They have a Rothko, a Mark Rothko painting that John Rockefeller owned, and that sold for $82 million. They have a big Damien Hirst. They're buying a major museum art collection, world class, and the Cezanne is kind of the cherry on the sundae.
MARTIN: Wow. So, they're giving Paris and New York a run for their money.
PEERS: Oh yes. They're outbidding a lot of grouchy Russian imperialists, yes.
MARTIN: Alexandra Peers. Her article appeared in Vanity Fair, and she joined me on the line from New York. Alexandra, thanks so much.
PEERS: Thanks so much, Rachel.
MARTIN: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.