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Sotheby’s announces auction of Chinese art just two days after museum display

The Estella collection will be sold in Hong Kong this month following exhibitions at leading institutions

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A collection of Chinese contemporary art unveiled to the public at the Louisiana Museum in Denmark in 2007, published in two glossy catalogues partially funded by the institution and with contributions from leading scholars in the field, and then sent for display to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem earlier this year, has now been consigned for sale at Sotheby’s. It is to be auctioned in Hong Kong this month.

The Estella collection consists of 200 works by 69 artists. It was assembled between 2004 and 2007 by dealer Michael Goedhuis for Sacha Lainovic, a director of WeightWatchers, and his business partner, Ray Debbane, who is president of a $1bn private equity firm, Invus, and also chairman of the board of WeightWatchers. The collection now belongs to New York dealer Acquavella who purchased it last summer. Sotheby’s also has a stake in it.

Speaking to The Art Newspaper, Michael Goedhuis says: “The aim of the partners was to form a fine collection of Chinese contemporary art buttressed by a book with the best possible scholarship [contributions in the catalogue funded by the Louisiana Museum are by Hou Hanru, Martina Köppel-Yang and Pi Li, among others]. The original concept was that ultimately some of the art would be donated to museums. But then a small group of additional partners was bought in and the collection became an investment vehicle.”

The decision to sell was made last August, when the Louisiana exhibition was still open. We understand that at this point Sotheby’s, who have declared an ownership stake in the collection, visited the exhibition to make a valuation. Mr Goedhuis contacted the Chinese government in an attempt to broker a sale but this would have taken too long to conclude. He also contacted French luxury-goods mogul Bernard Arnault, who is building a new museum in western Paris. However, according to Mr Goedhuis, the collection was “too broad” for Mr Arnault.

The show moved to the Israel Museum in September last year and just two days after its exhibition closed there on 1 March 2008, Sotheby’s announced the collection was up for sale. Israel Museum director James Snyder says: “At the time we made our arrangements for the exhibition, there was no indication of any intention to sell the collection. We learned of this development only towards the end of our showing.” When asked about his reaction to the sale, Louisiana director Poul Erik Tøjner declined to comment.

Bill Acquavella says: “I bought the collection last summer, it is a very good quality group. The museum exhibitions were set up by the original owners before my involvement.” Asked if he thought it was unusual that a dealer should sell work at auction in this way, he said: “That’s what I do. I’m an art dealer; I make money buying and selling art. I think it’s a good investment, I could be wrong but I hope not.”

Sotheby’s says that all 200 works in the collection will be sold, 110 in Hong Kong on 9 April, and the rest in New York this autumn. The Hong Kong sale is estimated at up to $12m.

“I must say I was surprised that the collection would be flipped abruptly into the saleroom and thus be dismantled, stripping it of its value as a coherent group,” says Mr Goedhuis. A confidentiality agreement prevents him from discussing the buyer or the terms of the deal but he did say: “I had understood that it had been acquired to remain as a collection for the long term.”

The market for contemporary Chinese art has seen phenomenal growth in the last five years, mainly due to Western buying and speculation. However, its peak may have passed. At Sotheby’s London sale of contemporary art in February, works by Chinese artists Liu Ye, Fang Lijun, Zhang Xiaogang and Yue Minjun failed to find buyers or sold at their low estimates.

o For commentary, p32

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