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March 8, 2011

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Upcoming auction rocks art world

THE Chinese art world is abuzz about the state and future of contemporary art and it has been badly shaken by news that part of a monumental collection is going under the hammer. Wang Jie reports.

The upcoming auction of a large portion of the legendary Ullens Collection of Chinese contemporary art has caused an earthquake in the Chinese art world and prompted fears for the art market.

Baron Guy Ullens shocked everyone with his sudden announcement on February 10 through Sotheby's that 106 works from his vast collection will be auctioned in Hong Kong on April 3.

The works include early paintings of some contemporary masters such as Liu Xiaogang, Wang Guangyi and Zeng Fangzhi and are expected to fetch a combined total of HK$100-130 million (US$12.7-16.7 million). One of the most famous items is Liu's triptych "Forever Lasting Love" created in 1988.

The collection spans around 20 years of the earliest avant-garde art, from the 1980s to the early 2000s and covers various schools, movements and media. Most of it has not been viewed since acquisition by the Belgian couple, the first significant buyers of Chinese art long before it was commercially hot.

The comprehensive collection contains more than 1,000 works.

But auction announcement caused a commotion and created what some in art circle called an "earthquake." It raised questions about whether it signaled a decline in interest in Chinese contemporary art and in the quality of the art - the market had been sizzling hot for years before the global financial crisis.

Guy Ullens, who is 76, said in a statement: "It is my dream to sell my collection of contemporary Chinese art as a whole. But due to its quantity and price, it has to be sold through groups."

He indicated in an interview to The Art Newspaper that he might look in a different direction for collection and young talent, such as contemporary Indian art and mentioned artist Bharti Kher.

"This April's group auction at Sotheby's will definitely have a negative impact on the price of some contemporary Chinese artists, such as Zhang Xiaogang," says Zhu Qi, a famous art critic in Beijing.

"The impact will not only be seen on the market price of some contemporary artists, but also on their artistic status on the international art stage," Zhu adds.

Negative impact

Zhu compares the Ullens' auction to the strategy of British advertising mogul and collector Charles Saatchi to sell his entire collection of contemporary Chinese art.

"These are the strong signals that the European art collectors are losing their confidence in contemporary Chinese art," says Zhu.

According to him, the major problems are lack of both capitals in the art market and an academic support.

Financial legislation is still "up in the air," Zhu says. "What's even worse is that some Chinese artists are creating art in batch production. The standard and quality drop sharply. All these things disappoint Western collectors."

"I have reached the stage of my collecting journey where it is time to share some of the wealth of my collection with other collectors," Ullens said in a statement about the sale. "This will enable me to continue to work with new and emerging artists, as it has been my passion since I began this collection over 20 years ago.

Ullens has already been selling art. In early 2007, he sold a Zeng Fanzhi canvas to cover what he called the "huge operating cost" of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing.

In 2009 Ullens provided works to top auction houses in China. For example, he sold "Rare Birds Sketched from Nature" by Emperor Song Huizong (1082-1135) of the Song Dynasty (960-1279) for 60 million yuan (US$9.13 million); seven years go he had paid 2.5 million yuan for it.

It is estimated that in the past two years Ullens sold a cluster of big-name artworks for around 600 million yuan; they includes works by Chen Yifei and Zhang Xiaofang.

Art media were astounded by the amount and one called Ullens "a too-successful businessman instead of a collector."

This furor has eclipsed the praise that Ullens earned over the years as "a far-sighted collector." Some media speculated about Ullens' original intention in entering the Chinese art market, suggesting the couple was speculating and waited 20 years to cash in.

"The Ullens couple are to be respected," says Lorenze Helbling, owner of ShanghART Gallery. "After all, he has been engaged in this area for so many years. Some works have been in his hands for more than 20 years. This kind of collector has become increasingly rare. Now a small number of buyers hand the art piece back to the auction house only one or two years after purchase."

In 2002, the Ullens couple established the Guy and Myriam Ullens Foundation in Switzerland to promote contemporary Chinese art internationally. The foundation has sponsored events and exhibitions of Chinese art all over the world, including the Venice Biennale's Chinese projects in 2003 and 2005.

"When Chinese contemporary art was ignored at its infancy, the couple gave timely help," says one art insider who declined to be identified, perhaps because of the negative publicity about the auction.

Unlike art critics and some media, many Chinese artists feel grateful to the Ullens couple.

"They bought my first artworks in 1998," recalls Zhou Tiehai, one of the pioneering contemporary artists in Shanghai. "I don't think there is anything wrong in their selling. They are old and need to think about the future of the collection. Even if they wanted to donate, who would be rich enough to house and maintain the whole collection?"

It is estimated that it would cost around 20 million yuan a year for a qualified museum to house the collection.

Internationally famous artist Zhang Huan remains upbeat about contemporary Chinese art.

"The vitality of contemporary Chinese art is not waning. Contemporary art is not so easily influenced by one Western collector. The critical thing for Chinese artists is to create quality art work," Zhang says.

Art center

In addition to the controversy over the sale, many members of art circles question whether the nonprofit Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing will be closed.

But Ullens has said the center "will be running as usual" and UCCA rebutted suggestions that Ullens was retreating from China. Ullens told The Art Newspaper that he hoped to find "long-term partners and turn over management at some point."

In fact, Shanghai's Minsheng Art Museum, which has collaborated with UCCA, had approached the couple to purchase the entire collection. "After we learned that the Ullens couple tend to sell their collection, we tried to retain their collection in China," says Li Feng, assistant director of the museum.

"Due to some obstacles, the deal hasn't be made. Actually their collection is only a small part of Chinese contemporary art. It's not right to pin the hopes on just one person or organization," he adds. "In our view, retreating is not a big thing; the key point is their earlier role in the contemporary Chinese art world."

Recent sales from the Ullens Collection

Painting by Wu Bin (1937-): 169 million yuan

Calligraphy by Zeng Gong (1019-1083): 109 million yuan

Painting "Rare Birds Sketched from Nature" by Emperor Song Huizong (1082-1135): 60 million yuan

Oil by Chen Yifei (1946-2005): 40 million yuan

Oil by Liu Xiaodong (1963-): 6.83 million yuan


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