1.3 billion Chinese people, but still not many substantial collectors of Chinese contemporary art

Here are the best known: one Swiss, one Chinese, one Belgian, three American and one British


The mainstay of both East and West

Uli Sigg (b.1946) is the world’s most famous collector of Chinese contemporary art, and as he started in the mid-1990s, it shows what a small field it still is, despite the present feeding frenzy.

He is Swiss, trained as a lawyer, has been a journalist, and has had a career mirroring the growing globalisation of world business. Aged 61, straight after the death of Mao Tse Tung in 1976, he was given senior responsibility for Asia Pacific in the Schindler Group, the company that makes most of the escalators and elevators in the skyscrapers of Beijing and Shanghai. He set up the first joint venture in modern times between China and the West, and enjoys the kind of esteem that has led to a place on the advisory board of the China Development Bank.

From 1995 to 1999 he was Swiss ambassador to China, and it was then that he started buying Chinese art, working backwards to acquire pieces of the historic Avant-garde of the 80s and early 90s. In this he had the assistance of, among others, another Swiss, Lorenz Helbling, the Mandarin-speaking owner of ShanghArt Gallery.

Since Chinese museums have not been collecting in this area, Mr Sigg’s aim has been above all to provide a record of the artistic production of the period. In an interview with BusinessWeek last June, he said: “My personal tastes are not so important; rather, I try to have a reasonable collection mirroring what Chinese artists are concerned with…I have more of a museum approach than a private-collector approach.” He now owns 1,400 works by nearly 200 artists and in all media: painting, drawing, sculpture, photography, video, installation, and performance.

In 1998, he established the Chinese Contemporary Award for Chinese artists living in China, and although it is only for $3,000, it is very influential. The judges are major figures in the contemporary art scene, such as the late Harald Szeemann (another Swiss), Alanna Heiss of New York’s P.S.1, Chinese art critic Hou Hanru, and the director of this year’s Documenta, Roger Buergel.

This means that not only are Chinese artists exposed to top-flight international assessment, but the judges themselves are exposed to Chinese art. It is certainly no coincidence that Szeemann’s Venice Biennale of 1999, the year after his judging session in Beijing, had a very strong Chinese component, facilitated by loans from the Sigg Collection (see right). The first representative public showing of the Sigg Collection was at the Kunstmuseum Bern in 2005 and the catalogue, published by Hatje Cantz, is now a basic reference work on contemporary Chinese art.

Uli Sigg is a member of the International Council of MoMA, New York, and the International Advisory Council of Tate, London. He has never sold any of his works.

o Until 17 June, the Lewis Glucksman Gallery of University College, Cork, Ireland, is showing “The Year of the Golden Pig: Contemporary Chinese Art from the Sigg Collection”, with works by 44 artists.

The main (only?) Chinese collector

It is a reflection of how shallow-rooted the world of contemporary art is in China that, despite the recent bout of speculation in the market, which has included Chinese buyers, there is still only one Chinese collector of any public importance.

Guan Yi, 41, comes from a family that made huge sums of money in chemical manufacturing in Qing Dao. He has now handed over management to his brother to dedicate himself full time to his collecting. He has a 1,400 sq. m warehouse on the outskirts of Beijing full of works of art. He calls it an archive, and, like Uli Sigg and Guy Ullens (see right), he is carrying out the role that Chinese public institutions are failing to do. He gets the visitors too: his web site records that the members of MoMA, the Centre Pompidou, Tate Modern and Denver Art Museum have all been to visit. He himself has taken part in discussions at Art Basel and MiArt, the 2006 Milan contemporary art fair.

Back in the heroic days of the 80s Avant-garde, he would have liked to be an artist, but, as he told the MiArt audience: “I was only an angry young man. I took photographs, but they were not a success…At the end of the 90s, I wanted to find my identity again and I felt nostalgia for the utopia of the 1980s, when the cultural climate was pure and innocent, so from 2000 onwards I became a collector.” He follows his own taste, which is not that of his fellow Chinese, who, he says, go solely for paintings as they do not understand the rest.

He has about 500 works, some of them big installations, the largest being World Factory by Huang Yongping, which covers 300 square metres. He dreams of building a museum, perhaps in Beijing or Qingdao, to house the collection. He hunts for artists “with an audacious capacity to look at universal issues with a personal critical language”, and he cites, in particular, Huang Yongping, Wang Guanyi, Zhang Peili, Wu Shanzhuan and Yan Lei.

The foodstuffs baron…

Baron Guy Ullens comes from a Belgian diplomatic family posted to China in the 1930s. He inherited a family business that refined sugar and grew seeds. He made a fortune, selling it for E1.2 billion in 1990. In 1985, he established a new company, Artal Group, which invested in the US, Europe and China, and then bought Weightwatchers at a fraction of the price it achieved when it then went public (see Sacha Lainovic below). His collecting is eclectic, beginning with antique Chinese art, including calligraphy, Turner watercolours (to be sold at auction by Sotheby’s in London on 4 July); it is now concentrated on Chinese contemporary art, with some 1,500 works in all media. He emphasises that he was the first Westerner to buy in this area, from 1987 onwards. He has been advised by the Hong Kong dealer Tsong Zung Chang and from 2002 by Fei Dawei, one of the consultants to the 1989 Paris exhibition “Les Magiciens de la Terre” at the Centre Pompidou (see right).

In 2002, 140 pieces from the collection were shown at the Fondation Cartier in Paris, The collection has been added to since then, with some particularly gritty installations shown to the public in “The Monk and the Demon” at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Lyons and the Guangdong Museum of Art in 2004. In the same year, Guy Ullens showed his calligraphy and ancient Chinese paintings in the Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp, and some of his contemporary art simultaneously in the city’s Museum of Contemporary Art.

Guy and Myriam Ullens now live in Switzerland because they find the conditions for buying art better there, but they do not live with the art, which will be exhibited in the Guy Ullens Center (see p34) in Beijing.

Baron Ullens enjoys his elevated place in society: as the Ullens Center website says, he is (among other things) on the board of the Musée Guimet in Paris, a member of the International Council of Tate, and he accompanied the King and Queen of Belgium on their 2005 visit to China.

…and the Weightwatchers connection

Of course, it may only be a coincidence, but Sacha Lainovic, a retiring figure whose Estella Collection of Chinese art is on exhibition at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark until 5 August, has been a director of Weightwatchers since it was bought by Guy Ullens’ Artal Group in 1999. Could it be that this 49 year-old American with a French background (he studied engineering in Lyons) was inspired by his Belgian boss to take up Chinese art as a new hobby—or investment?

He has a blue-chip assemblage of 113 works in all media, bought from British, New York-based dealer, Michael Goedhuis, who has evolved from dealing in ancient Chinese art to modern Chinese ink painting to the most approved contemporary work. It includes the well known names: Ai Weiwei, Fang Lijun, Zhang Peili, Xu Bing, Zhang Huan, Zhang Xiaogang etc., and nearly all works date from after 2000.

Michael Goedhuis told The Art Newspaper: “Mr Lainovic and his partner felt there was no satisfactory book on the subject, so a few years ago they teamed up with me to put together a collection that would be the basis of a publication”, and, in fact, there is now a substantial tome on the collection, published by the Louisiana Museum and with an essay by Hou Hanru.

The cyber-mother figure

Eloise and Cris Haudenschild of La Jolla, California, collect Chinese photography and video art, after first forming a collection of Latin American art. In the late 90s, business interests in computer technology took them repeatedly to China. When Mrs Haudenschild asked to see art there, she kept being shown watercolours and calligraphy, but after a visit to the Shanghai Art Museum, where there was some video on display, she met dealers Lorenz and Laura Helbling of ShanghArt, who showed her some large-scale photos to which she responded immediately. “I started buying; Uli Sigg and I were the only ones then interested in those media.”

Through the Helblings she has met many young artists: “That’s the pleasure of collecting contemporary art—meeting the creator. If you just send your art advisor out with instructions to buy whatever’s hottest, you miss the whole point of it. There is such an indiscriminate way of buying now that I find it offensive to the artists. There is also a worrying situation with the auction houses.”

Of Charles Saatchi’s website for Chinese artists (see below), she says: “Opening it up to everyone is good; maybe there will be some chance of dialogue, but I work in a different way.” She has become an activist for photographic and video art in China, with the exhibition of her collection, “Zooming into Focus”, moving from the San Diego Museum of Art to Shanghai to Singapore, and, finally, the National Art Museum of China in Beijing, which had never held an exhibition of video art before. She has a residency programme, where Chinese artists come to stay with her so that they can work in peace and have a taste of the West. They always loan works if asked and have never sold a piece to date. Their website with blog,, carries pictures of work by their artists, who include, among others, Cao Fei, Hong Hao, Song Tao, Weng Fen, Xiang Liqing, Yang Yong, Zeng Guogu.

What kept you so long?

Charles Saatchi, British advertising millionaire and one of the world’s most influential art collectors, who famously made the reputation of the Young British Artists in the early 90s, as well as the Leipzig school of painting, entered the Chinese contemporary art lists last year. Since he is famous for spotting a trend, one can only ask, what kept you so long? Last autumn a new section on the Saatchi Gallery website, “New Art from China”, began to list artists recently purchased. These now include the inevitable Zhang Xiaogang, Wang Guangyi and the US-based Zhang Huan, whose work was in the 2002 Whitney Biennial. Other purchases, acquired through middle-men in Europe, include Yue Minjun, Qiu Jie, Shen Shaomin, Zheng Guogu, Fang Lijun, Zhang Xiaotao, Xiang Jing, Shi Xinming, Miao Xiaochun, Fen Zhengjie, Zeng Fangzhu, Li Qing, Shi Jinsong, Li Songsong, Xian Jing, Zhang Dali and Cang Xin.

Speaking to The Art Newspaper, Charles Saatchi said that he hoped his new space at the former Duke of York’s barracks on the King’s Road in London would be ready to open in November. He also said that a Chinese contemporary show would be either the first or second in the calendar and would include the 20 artists listed above.

The original aspect of Saatchi’s project is his enjoyably interactive website,, which is also translated into Mandarin Chinese. Artists are invited to post their works and by the middle of last month, 25 Chinese had done so. The site has six million visitors, says the Saatchi team, and Sotheby’s admit to consulting it. The team are expecting word of mouth to alert the 20 to 30 art schools in China to this chance for students to get their work known, chat about it and even post lonely-hearts pages. There will shortly also be a Chinese translation of the site’s six-month competition, “Showdown” (started in March), where the public can vote for works entered on the site. The prize will be £1,000 ($1,930) and, what is much more important, the chance to exhibit at the future Saatchi Gallery.


Ever wonder where the best networking for Chinese art takes place? Try the Private Wealth Council, a strictly by-invitation-only body founded after the 2004 World Economic Forum meeting in Davos to discuss “strategic issues relating to private wealth”. Along with international luminaries such as Al Gore, members include Simon de Pury, head of Phillips de Pury, which holds auctions of Chinese art and is rumoured to be about to open up activities in Shanghai, Sam Keller, head of the Art Basel fair, which is also exploring the Chinese market, Lorenz Helbling, owner of ShanghArt Gallery, and Uli Sigg, the world’s most famous collector of Chinese art. All Swiss.