China’s Mischief-Making Collector of Western Art

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Georgina Adam takes a look at the man who has been behind a surprising number of international art world controversies like the Kenyan pavilion at the last Venice Biennale (that was filled with Chinese artists) and the Anselm Kiefer show that antagonized the artist and his galleries.

Meet Yan Lugen:

Yan is proud of his huge art collection, built up since the 1990s. According to his own estimates, which have varied, it numbers between 3,000 and 5,000 works. Prominent among his acquisitions is Picasso’s “Woman in a Green Hat” and he lists other prizes: a Monet “Water Lilies” and “View of Chapelle de Ronchamp”, a cast of Rodin’s “Thinker” and one of Degas’ 14-year-old dancers. To this must be added, he says, works by Van Gogh, Matisse, Delvaux, Dalí, Renoir, Chagall, Derain, Henri Martin, Utrillo, as well as “Rubens’ oil paintings and Michelangelo’s sculptures”, along with traditional and contemporary Chinese art: he puts the total value of his holdings at CNY10bn.

But for some observers, the extent and quality of the collection is a little mysterious. One Beijing-based collector tactfully says it has many “not super-important pieces, but by well-known names”.

“I am one of the collectors among global Chinese with the most holding of traditional and contemporary masters’ works worldwide,” Yan says. Boastful; ambitious? Certainly. “He’s very charming, engaging — but frankly, he doesn’t really seem to know what he’s doing,” says one Hong Kong adviser.