Chinese Art: Worry That Lies Behind the Smiles
Source:The Telegraph Author:Colin Gleadell Date: 2011-03-31 Size:
Baron Guy Ullens' sale predicted to exceed estimates by 'five or ten times’, whiile others worry at this widespread disposal of his entire collection of Chinese contemporary art.

Baron Guy Ullens' sale predicted to exceed estimates by 'five or ten times’, whiile others worry at this widespread disposal of his entire collection of Chinese contemporary art.


Zeng Fanzhi: Mask Series No. 4, oil on canvas, 1994

 Four years ago, I interviewed the Belgian industrialist, Baron Guy Ullens on the eve of the 10 million pound sale of his collection of watercolours by JMW Turner. It was the best collection in private hands, built over twelve years to fulfil a childhood dream, Ullens said. But he was selling it to fund another dream - the building of a contemporary art museum in Beijing.

“I have an obligation to China and its artists,” he explained. “I must not fail them.”

Ullens’ father and uncle had been diplomats in China, and he began collecting classical Chinese paintings and antiquities in the early 1980’s, followed by what became a passion for contemporary Chinese art. During the late 1980’s he was buying works that are now worth hundreds of thousands, even millions of pounds, for around $5,000. At one point he was buying one work a day, until his collection grew to some 1,500 works. His dream in 2007 was to open a museum that would not only house his collection, but introduce international contemporary art to China. At the same time it would serve as a model for an international art museum in China that the Chinese could one day take over. Throughout China, where there was no museum of contemporary art, artists were counting on him to pull it off. Whether he could sell the idea, or his art, to Chinese institutions, though, was another matter.

Four months after the Turner sale, the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art (UCCA) opened in a 3,000 sq metre former arms factory in Beijing. The state of the art building was financed entirely by Ullens and was the largest not-for-profit space in China, its running, theoretically funded by philanthropists and shop sales. But staff came and went. Ullens then entered into lengthy partnership negotiations with the Minsheng Bank, but couldn’t agree on terms or a price.

In May 2009, he started selling Chinese art from his collection partly to continue funding the art centre. Through the Poly auction rooms in Beijing, he has since sold nearly £50 million of art - antique, modern and contemporary. A Song Dynasty scroll he bought in 2002 for $2.8 million sold for $8.4 million. Next week, he is selling over 100 works valued at up to $17 million at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong, and in June, another 34 works at Poly.

[Editor] Lola Xu

    Artintern