Collector sells £15m Turner collection to buy Chinese contemporary art

Baron Ullens is acquiring new works for his Beijing gallery



The Belgian collector Baron Guy Ullens has consigned 14 Turner watercolours to auction, because he wants to focus on contemporary Chinese art. The works, which will be sold at Sotheby’s London on 5 July, are expected to fetch £10m-£15m ($19.7m-$29.55m).

Baron Ullens has founded the first private museum for both Chinese and international contemporary art in Beijing, which is to open in October. Titled the Ullens Centre for the Arts, it is located in Beijing’s Dashanzi art district and its first chairman is Jan Debbaut, former head of collections at Tate.

Guy Ullens, whose fortune derives from the food industry, lived in China in the early years of his career, and collects classical Chinese landscapes as well as his newest interest, contemporary Chinese art. He acquired the Turner watercolours over the past 20 years, some at auction, and some through dealers. Most were kept in store at the Geneva Free Port and according to Sotheby’s specialist Henry Wemyss, there will be no problems exporting the works out of the UK should they go to foreign buyers. Indeed, Sotheby’s is taking the group around the world, including Hong Kong and Los Angeles, before the sale. “Turner is such an international name and his technique of brush on paper resonates with Chinese buyers, as well as the more traditional American collectors of his work,” says Mr Wemyss.

The Ullens collection covers everything from early, naturalistic renditions of British coastal scenes to late, impressionistic views in Switzerland, Germany, France, and Italy. Among the most expensive works is a large Swiss view, The Lake Lucerne from the Landing Place at Fluellen, probably 1807-10, estimated at £2m-£3m ($3.95m-$5.91m). This last appeared at auction in the Wills sale at Sotheby’s just two years ago when it made £1.86m ($3.35m). Another work, Oberwesel, 1840, carries the same estimate.

Last year saw new Turner records established for an oil and for a work on paper: a Venetian oil, Giudecca, La Donna della Salute and San Giorgio sold for $35.86m at Christie’s New York while the watercolour The Blue Rigi sold for £5.83m ($11m) at Christie’s London. Christie’s has traditionally dominated the Turner market so the sale of this collection, which is the biggest to come to auction since the Munro sales in 1878 and 1879, is a coup for Sotheby’s, which offered a guarantee on the group.