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Contemporary Chinese Art- another kind of view

DSL Collection

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online since  2008-04-30
A private research on western collectors

A private research on western collectors

As China becomes more influential, it is the local avant-garde art that is the first cultural image seen by the West and used as a window through which to understand Chinese culture. Research shows that in the past ten years that 99% of contemporary Chinese artworks have been purchased by overseas collectors, yet coilection of Chinese contemporary art Is rarely seen as internationally important. For example, in the 2007 Top 200 Collectors ranking, collectors of contemporary Chinese art are seldom found. Similarly, in the 2007 Power 100 Art ranking, very few people related to contemporary Chinese art can bee seen. Contemporary art from China still has a long way to go, both in the high-ranking art market and in terms of its international impact. This article argues that when the outflow of contemporary Chinese artworks started in the early 1990s the Western collectors of Chinese artwork were beginners in their levei of power and experience. This earlier situation hinders the current development of contemporary art in China, which is overly Concerned with commercial production. This in-depth research is dedicated to create a reference for Chinese collectors to create a system of art collection.
Who is Collecting Contemporary Chinese Artwork?
Western coilectors can be classified into two groups: 1. Coilector couples: Baron Guy Ullens & Myriam Uilens from Beigium, Howard Farber & Patricia Farber from the USA, DSL from France, Jurgen Ludwig Fisher & Eiena Ludwig from Germany. 2. Individual coilectors: Uii Sigg from SWitzerland, Worth from the USA, Pierre Huber from SWitzerland, Jean Marc Decrop from France, Didier Hirsch from France, Fritz Kaiser from Swtizerland, and Charies Saatchi from the UK. Other internationai collectors involved in contemporary art in China are: Michael Goedhuis from the USA, John Fernandez, Christopher Tsai, and Sue Stoffel.
Famous Collectors and their Methods
Baron Guy Ullens
Baron Guy Uilens is a 73 year old who runs a family trade in confectionery and is a board member at the Tate Modern, England, the Guimet Oriental Museum and the Foundation Cartier in Paris. He was ranked 97''' on the 2007 annual list of the 100 most powerfui people by Art Review, Mr. and Mrs_ Ullens have become star coilectors in 2007, marked by the opening of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) opened last year with a series of prominent exhibitions and projects that were promoted. The Ullens' collections encompass a wide span and variety of cultures. Among their 2000 collections, 20% are classic works while 80% are Contemporary art, inciuding sculpture, paintings, large-scale apparatus, and photographs. Their interest in coliecting art originates from both family and foreign influences. Ullens' mother is a qualified archaeologist in Asia, and Uliens lived with his family in China for years when he was little (his father was a Belgian diplomat, and his uncle ambassador of Belgium in China). His interest in Chinese art was molded by his earlier experiences. Ullens' European and American collections include Turner's oii paintings from the 19'" century, Renaissance Art, and Western contemporary art from artists such as Gerhard Richter, Jeff Wall, Robert Mangold, Andreas Gursky, and Thomas Struth, China is highlighted in the Asian coilections. Uliens was instructed in collecting by Gisele Groes, a Belgian antique trader, Christian Deydier, a top expert and Giuseppe Eskenazi from Britain. Among the classics, apart from some gold decorations from the ancient Central Asia, the Ullens have purchased more than 200 pieces of high-ranking Chinese antiques and paintings such as Rare Birds by HUizong the Song Dynasty Emperor at the expense of 25,300,000 RMB. Ullens made a move to begin purchasing Chinese contemporary art as the resuit of having contact with Wu Erlu from Yale. In the early 1990s, he began to know Zhang Songren and Oeng Yongqiang, painting traders from Hong Kong, and began to be interested in the "Post 89" phenomenon. From then on, he jumped into early contemporary art in China, and steadily established a strong system for contemporary Chinese art collection. Ullens' mode of collection has a clear trace of generation and specialization. The "85 New Wave" exhibition is a summary of the artistic creation of a whole generation, justifying the literature and the culture by means of cultural archaeology. Furthermore his collection of peripheral resources_ such as the sketches and notes by 85' artists -shows that his work can also be used as historic record with which to create iiterature, with the help of Fei Dawei, a historian. The distinctive characters of Ullens are: 1. He has the only collection system available that inciudes both classic and contemporary Chinese art. 2. He creates his collections using the iargest investment. 3. He has an independent method of collection that is guided by experts. 4. He focuses mainly on early contemporary art in China ("85 New Wave"). S. He is a collector that is good at branding.

UliSigg Uli
Sigg is 61 years old and chairman of the Ringier Holding AG, a huge media COmpany, as well as a consultant for Chinese companies such as China Development Bank. As a former Swiss ambassador in China, he is the biggest and most powerful collector of contemporary Chinese art. He was ranked 81" on the annual iist of the 100 most powerful people by Art Review in the year 2005. Although a slight decrease of his rank is seen abroad, he remains on top of the list in China. Receiving the "CCAA 2008" (China Contemporary Art Award) -an end- of-year gift, it has become clear where his strategy and focus of art coiiection lies. Sigg has a very clear idea of collection. At his start his collection in Europe mostly involved works from the abstract school in SWitzerland, favoring European classics at the same time. Later on, he began traveling frequentiy between Europe and China for business. During these 20 years, he has gone deep into artistic sites and studios, visited over a thousand artists, and collected in a very systematic way nearly 2000 pieces of contemporary Chinese artworks from 200 different artists. The majority of his collection is avant-garde, and also includes sculpture and photography. Sketches, posters and paper-cuts are also included, while large- scale works like installation are relatively few. 5igg's collections encompass thoroughly and systematically the early period of contemporary Chinese art, showing a large span of generations. For example, apart from the large number of "Post 89" collective works, his collection also covers works about the Cultural Revolution (such as Chairman Mao Visiting Villages in Canton which was won by 5igg for 10,120,000 RMB) and those from even earlier times. He hopes to shed light on the larger image of contemporary Chinese art by means of collection, and to reveal a complete picture. As an usher and forerunner in the collection of early contemporary Chinese art, he first cast the net and retrieved it full with bounty. But his limitations still exist. He has collected only one or two pieces of work by each artist in his collection, which does not allow for case studies or long-term observation and investment in any artist. Sigg's collection is characterized by: 1. The largest and most complete collection system concerning contemporary Chinese art in the world. 2. An abundant financiai supply to use for collection. 3. He is not dependent on the instruction of experts, emphasizing the process of collecting, and gathering art works in person (in fact, the decades he has spent collecting art himself has made him an expert). 3. He is dedicated to the ¬Post-89" group and avant-garde artworks (most of his collection are by young artists). 4. At the moment he does not focusing on art celebrities (largely because of the high prices).

Howard Farber
Howard Farber is 67 years old and was originally a real estate investor. He is now one of the few collectors in the worid specializing in contemporary art from China and Cuba. Farber's collection is still 90mewhat vague and is based mainly on elebrities in contemporary art in China. He wncentrates on easel-based painting, taking ql the majority of his collection, whereas ¬otographs and sculptures as well as decorative works are supplementary. Farber's knack for collection began in the US during the 1970s and through the '980s, to the beginning of the 20th Century when modern art was popular. His collection covers works from many important artists such as Georgia O'Keefe, Max Weber, John Martin, and Marsden Hartley. in the mid- 1990s, he steadily reorganized his coilection, and started gathering modern and contemporary art from Cuba. In 1995, he and his wife came across contemporary Chinese art at Zhang Songren's Han Ya Xuan in Hong Kong. Later he got to know Robert from Time Zone 8 bookstore, as well as Karen Smith, whose introduction and consultancy helped him make way to a new area of collection- contemporary Chinese art. Farber's method of collection lies somewhere between Sigg and Uilens, and is not rich enough in case collections, but shows clear stages and collective features, The works demonstrate a high level of completeness, showing an obvious selling effect. Farber's collecting is characterized by: 1. Specializing in contemporary art in China and Cuba. 2. Using an average amount of investment. 3. Built with the assistant of a consultant. 4. Strategic Coilection.

Jurgen Ludwig Fisher couple
The Jurgen Ludwig Fisher couple originally ran a well-known chocolate company in Europe and made donations to or lending their collections to many museums in the world. They have established more than twenty reievant museums and institutes. Sadly Professor Ludwig passed away recently in 1996. The Ludwigs have some thousand pieces in their collections, covering a wide variety of art. One line follows scuiptures from ancient Greece and ancient Rome, classic porceiain from China, early American Art, Baroque art and Modern Art; while the other line covers more than three thousand years of art history, from the Avant-garde, Contemporary German art, American Pop Art, to the Eastern European Sociaiist art. The Chinese oil paintings in the collection are mostly from the avant-garde of the 1980s and 1990s. The Ludwigs' method of collection lies in their interest in varieties and styles. As a result, their collection covers a wild range of artworks that is large in number and not without exceptional cases. Yet such a wide variety may also iead to a weakened system of completeness. An effective generation difference fails to form, showing a lack of control in selecting and collecting behavior.
The Ludwig coliection system is characterized by: 1. A system that has a large time span. 2. Collection that does not aim for profit and a willingness to donate their collections. 3. Contemporary Chinese aft is not collected (According to Mrs. Ludwig, this is due to their lack of understanding).

Pierre Huber
Pierre Huber is 66 years old and general director of the Shanghai Contemporary, former committee member of Art Basel, and owner of the Art & Public Gailery, Geneva. Huber became famous after his "Exhibition of Pierre Huber's Collection" in Switzerland in 2005. He has collected more than three thousand pieces of contemporary art (for example, 40 paintings by Immendorff). Apart from the European and American part, works from China, Japan, South Korea, India, Latin America and Africa take up a large percentage. Recently, Huber plans to spend five million euros on contemporary art from Asia. Huber's collection taient started in 1993 and 94 when he chose an apparatus by Gu Dexin as the first piece of contemporary Chinese art, setting the basic tone for his further collections, which includes overseas Chinese like Chen Zhen, Yan Peiming, Huang Yongping, Zhang Peili, and Wang Du. In 1996, Huber met Hou Hanru during his first trip in China, and got deep in touch with avant-garde art in China. After this, Huber kept a close relationship with Zhou Tiehai, whose consult and assistance triggered Huber's intere,t in contemporary Chinese art. This resuited in a grand meeting of contemporary art for China between the biannual exhibition and the "Exhibition of Pierre Huber's Collection. »

DSL are French collectors who recently emerged specializing in contemporary Chinese art. They established the DSL collection, including 120 pieces of contemporary art by more than 70 Chinese artists, and the majority of their collections are avant-garde experimental works from the early period of Chinese contemporary art. They pay special attention to art groups in Canton, for example the "Da Weixiang" and "Yang Jiang" groups. Their collection emphasizes ideology, the documentation of art, and apparatus, without excluding photography and painting.
Dsl involved themselves in contemporary Chinese art quite late, starting in 2005 Although the number of pieces in their collection as a whole Is not big, their coliections are carefully selected, and can be classified into three depending on their origins: those using new media materiai and part of the internationalized group from Shanghai; those using political language of the social reality-oriented group from Beijing; those from new immigrants with a sub-centre for indigenous and modern changes-for example the Zhujiang group in Canton. From the differentiation of these three areas, it is obvious that DSL has a clear grasp of the art situation in China, which is why they can act as insiders and control the already limited resources for coilection.

Didier Hirsch

Didier Hirsch is a 56-year-old former senior manager of the Hewlett-Packard Company, Hong Kong. Starting in 2005, his interest in art collection shifted from Europe to contemporary Chinese art. Although he entered into the market quite late, he had collected almost a hundred pieces of paintings and sculptures'by 2007. His collection tends to follow important Western collectors iike Sigg and especially Farber, and the prices of the pieces are relatively low. It is worth mentioning that collection of smallscale works helps to grasp the focus and clues of the course of art development, and Hirsch provides a good example of this.

Jean Marc Decrop

Jean Marc Decrop is the first French collector devoted to contemporary Chinese art, especially contemporary Chinese paintings, like Zhang Xiaogang, Wang Guangyi, Fang Lijun, and Li Shan. His collection totals about 150 pieces.


Michael Goedhuis
Michael Goedhuis is a qualified trader of contemporary Chinese painting and owns the renowned Gagosian Gallery in London and New York. He is very wealthy, and was ranked the second on the annual list of the 100 most powerful peopie, 2007, by Art Review. Goedhuis purchased Flying Bird by Xu Bing for 408,000 US doilars at the Sotheby's Asian Contemporary Auction in the spring of 2006. Although his intent of collecting contemporary Chinese art is still not clear, it shows that as a top figure worldwide, he is taking the Chinese reality more and more seriously, having a great Impact on the collection of contemporary Chinese art.

Fritz Kaiser
Fritz Kaiser runs a fortune management company. In the 1990s, Kaiser started collecting American Pop Art, and in 2003 he was in touch with contemporary Chinese art by communicating with other collectors. Sigg and He Pulin from the ShanghART Gallery led his way into the insiders' circle and Kaiser got to learn the novel view and techniques on collecting from Sigg. Kaiser focuses on the contemporary Chinese art from the 21" Century, including painting, photography, sculpture and ceramics and especially unknown works from the known. Till now Kaiser has collected works by about 30 Chinese artists.

John Fernandez
John Fernandez has invested a million US dollars in contemporary Chinese art between the years of 2004 and 2007. His main channels are galleries in London and New York contacted via the Internet. He had to sell works by Keith Haring and Kean-Michael Basquiat when he was in need of money.


Christopher Tsai is a 30-year-old hedge fund manager in New York. Since 2002, he has begun investing in works by Chinese artists, and his investment of 250,000 US dollars has already been paid back in the market. Tsai thinks very positiveiy about the future of the market in China, believing that contemporary Chinese art is underestimated and is worthy of foliow-up and attention. This explains why he inte,nds to take a financial perspective and set up a project for Chinese artwork.
The ordering of coilectors above stems from the amount of information available and is not related to power or fame. Apart from those listed, there are four other Western collectors interested in the contemporary art in China: Charles Saatchi is important as he is seen catching up with the latest developments in the contemporary Chinese art world, illustrated by his behavior at the "Farber's Chinese Collections" auction and the high profile entry into the Chinese market provided by the "Saatchi Gallery Online." His recent collecting has been rather vague, and perhaps a more efficient and reasonable way is still being developed. Worth, Farber's son-in-law and led by Farber, has a solid foundation as can be seen by his bidding at the "Farber's Chinese Collections" and his later actions. It is believed that Worth will slowly build his collection until it stuns the world. Madam Tang from the US was once said to have bought paintings by Gu Wenda and Xu Bing, two "Post-89" artists, at the price of 100,000 US dollars. Sue Stoffel has started collecting contemporary Chinese art works since the 1990s, but it is not clear what her collection is about.

Why do Collectors Purchase Contemporary Chinese Artworks at High Prices?

The early collectors, as weli as an increasing number of overseas funds, reflect rational investment by Western businessmen, whose motivation it to find a new ideology and stimulus in art, instead of raising and manipulating the prices. On the other hand, Southeastern buyers or Chinese business people, revealing the haste of Asian collectors as well as their uncertainty and lack of confidence for the future of contemporary art, support the recent high prices and bidding wars. They trade their collections frequently in order to overcome this anxiety.

What do Famous Collectors Plan for Young Chinese Artists?

As far as these important collectors are concerned, their main effort is still on overseas Chinese artists, Western artists and their own earlier collection of contemporary Chinese art, as is shown by Ullens and his exhibition plan for 2008. Fei Dawei on the other hand, a scholar and collection consultant, will probabiy focus more on his peer artists and Chinese art groups in France.
$igg is dearly the "Western godfather" in terms of discovering new Chinese artists. But like Su Xianting, he is excessively ambitious, expanding too widely, resuiting in attraction general attention instead of promoting a particular artist further and deeper.
Farber expressed, after selling off his collection of contemporary Chinese art at Philips, that Chinese art was still very cheap, showing his intention to buy new art works in China on a large scale. It is interesting to see how Farber is going to reorganize and adjust the balance between contemporary artworks from Cuba and those from China.
Saatchi is probably the most important promoter of new art from China. Compared with Ullens, Si99 and Farber, he came late, but he tried to find out the new course of development in art in China by employing his appeal and cheap Internet connection. However, he has not taken any concrete steps, and his seriousness in the Chinese contemporary art is questionable due to his astonishing method of establishing the YBA. Right now, it is said that a branch of Saatchi gallery will open in Russia. It is possible that Saatchi simply uses contemporary Chinese ar¬ to attract attention.

Who will follow up?

Although contemporary Chinese art is lofty at home, abroad it is regarded as decorative compared with mainstream Western art. However as China becomes stronger, and visibility and marketing of art are connected people receive a surprise. Still, spring rolls can hardly become the main course, and Chinese food, though truly appreciated by Chinese, is but something fancy to taste. Contemporary Chinese art is hardly comparable to Chinese delicacies that are more tuned to Western palates, leading to an increasing number of people coming to taste. Although this is a metaphor, it illustrates the great potential for individual collectors in the West like Ullens and Sigg. The course of development in China is a domino effect, pushing more Western collectors to participate in constructing an international market for avant-garde art in China and in writing scholarly reference for it. The complete collections of Ullens and Sigg at an earlier time formed a system. It is very unlikely that their collection will be lost and would most likely be taken over by other western collectors. Qualified collectors like Ullens and Sigg would not trust their collection to Chinese collectors or speculators from South-East Asia, because in terms of respect for qulture and professionalism, these collectors for the time being can hardly be trusted to protect and promote contemporary Chinese art. Because of its definition as an exoticized subculture it is a passing fad instead of part of the Western mainstream. It is mainly artworks from a collector's home country that are collected by the International Power 200 in the year 2007, and it is reasonable that objects closest to one's own life experience are prioritized. Therefore in the West, contemporary Chinese art is still regarded as an "outsider" whose novelty and rarity is easily exaggerated. At the same time, the focus of trend shifts rather too easily in other countries-such as the turn of Western interest in contemporary art from Latin America, India and Russia-which reveals the weakness as a host country. Consequently, it is an important subject for the future that Chinese collectors need to enhance their support for contemporary Chinese art. In this way the on-going avant- garde art in China will be able to rely on a healthy market at home, and the early works which are meaningful but lost abroad can be partially be brought back in the end, though a high price may be required. In brief, it is Western collectors that will take on the pieces in the collection of Ullens and Sigg. It may be that those privately purchased pieces that are now part of an "international club" are lost and cannot come back to China. Apart from high prices, Chinese collectors at home will also be faced with competition from South East Asian collectors as well as overseas Chinese collectors, looking at patterns in auctions like "Farber's Collection" auction. The most probable mode of transfer back to China is non-profit donation from people such as the Ludwig couple (but they donate contemporary art only). Collectors such as Sigg and Ullens tendency towards being Chinese indicates that, under the condition that a lot of contemporary artworks from China are being bought and taken to the West, accepting donations can be the best way to bring back a large number of early works in contemporary Chinese art.