Charles Saatchi: the man behind the Young British Art collection showcased in the ‘Sensation’ exhibition


For a man with a reputation for secrecy, who rarely gives interviews and is hardly ever seen on London’s contemporary art party circuit, Charles Saatchi is remarkably forthcoming on the one subject closest to his heart: his extraordinary collection of paintings and sculpture, which he shows in his private gallery in St John’s Wood and for which he regularly publishes handsome illustrated catalogues.

In funding this operation entirely from his own pocket, his intentions are as enigmatic as his personality. Is he driven by the quest for publicity and by the opportunity to advertise works of art which will, in due course, be offered to other collectors at profitable prices, or are his motives strictly philanthropic? Has he formed a long-term plan to maintain his collection as an entity, or is he an opportunist intending to trade it when his tastes change or market conditions prove favourable? On these and other issues, commentators have formed different opinions ranging from suspicion and cynicism to unbridled admiration, a set of contradictions which has produced a potent blend of mythology and fact. But, as one insider remarks, “Charles doesn’t care about the myth.”

The genesis of a collection

At about the time of Saatchi & Saatchi’s stock market listing in 1972, Charles Saatchi began to invest in modern art, building, during the next 15 years, what New York dealer Jeffrey Deitch describes as “one of the most remarkable achievements in connoisseurship ever, to rival the royal collections of the past”. An instinctive affinity with Minimalism was supplemented by an engagement with the new painting fashions of the early Eighties when Saatchi began to attract wider attention for his art market activities. Inevitably, they were coloured by controversy, in part as a result of the inherent hostility of the British press to contemporary art in all its shades.

One controversy took place in 1982 and involved the Tate Gallery which decided to mount a small exhibition of thirteen paintings by Julian Schnabel, then the most widely discussed young artist in the world. Eleven of those works were loaned by Charles Saatchi and his first wife, Doris, who has been credited with expanding his tastes to encompass the new styles of Neo-Expressionism. Both museum and collector attracted criticism for an arrangement which appeared to endorse Saatchi’s speculative acquisitions and to enhance the value of his investment. In hindsight, the criticism was harsh, and Schnabel has proved to be a relatively enduring artist, but Tate director Alan Bowness may have been naive in underestimating the suspicions aroused by such a relationship of dependency.

The original collection

Over a period of some 15 years, Charles Saatchi accumulated an unparalleled collection of modern British, European and, particularly, American art, regularly buying parcels of paintings and sculpture in package deals. Just how extensive this collection was can be seen from four original catalogues, entitled Art of Our Time, and a subsequent publication, New York Art Now; and from the accompanying exhibition programme initiated in 1985 in a former paint factory in Boundary Road, north London. Converted by the architect Max Gordon, the Saatchi Gallery became, and remains, one of the most outstanding places for looking at contemporary art in Europe.

The collection itself supplied the exhibition programme which favoured intriguing juxtapositions between closely or loosely related artists, many of whom were hardly familiar to a British audience: Twombly and Warhol with Marden and Judd, for example (in the exhibition with which the gallery was inaugurated); or Robert Mangold and Bruce Nauman (1989); or Anselm Kiefer and Richard Serra (1986-87), the most visionary confrontation in the schedule.

Revisiting those catalogues is a reminder of the sheer scale of the original collection. The long line of Minimalist paintings and sculpture has an historical importance eclipsing even the collection formed by the Italian Count Panza di Biumo (now mostly in the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art and the Guggenheim, New York). When the contributions of Baselitz, Cragg, Gober, Koons and many other names of the early and later Eighties are added to the equation, the range of Saatchi’s taste becomes apparent.

Reasons to be trading 1-2-3

By 1990, as the exhibition programme completed its coverage of established and younger American artists and now embraced the slightly peculiar juxtapositions of Leon Kossoff with Bill Woodrow, and Lucian Freud and Frank Auerbach with Richard Deacon, paintings and sculpture from the Art of Our Time catalogues began to appear on the art market in New York.

Although other agents were involved in special situations, Saatchi picked two main routes for his disposals: leading New York dealer Larry Gagosian, who was operating a polished secondary market service from new offices on Madison Avenue; and Sotheby’s, New York, which had ignited the contemporary art market with the bid of $18.8 million for De Kooning’s Interchange on 8 November 1989.

Six months later, just as the market peaked and turned, Saatchi offered a major painting at auction: an untitled abstract composition by Cy Twombly which fetched $3.5 million. It initiated an active period of disposal during which the entire collection was, in effect, dispersed.

Sources close to Charles Saatchi identify three reasons for his decision to dismantle the collection: the declining fortunes of Saatchi & Saatchi, which may have been the owner of as much as one half of the collection; his divorce from Doris and the financial obligations which it entailed; and the sheer enjoyment of the trade itself, the final link in the chain of discovery, negotiation and ownership.

“Charles is a commercial creature”, explains London dealer Victoria Miro. “It does not detract from his passion of looking at art, but he is not searching for a religious experience. He is aware of the marketability of art. Other collectors want to hide that side of their activity.”

The value of the Saatchi imprimatur

On occasions, Saatchi’s disposals caused friction and ruptured friendships. Sandro Chia, one of the original members of the Italian Trans-avanguardia, was a painter in whom he had invested heavily, but in whose career he had lost interest. When it became know that he had closed his position, the Chia market fell steeply and has never properly recovered. But, in retrospect, the artist’s own development, rather than the collector’s diffidence, should be blamed for the lower rating. For other artists, an orderly market was maintained as lines of stock appeared at auction. Indeed, the Saatchi imprimatur was seen as a bonus which added to the value of the works, even in the recession of 1991 and 1992, when the majority of the collection was being dismantled.

Rauschenberg’s Rebus

Charles Saatchi’s engagement with the collection which he had formed and was now dispersing received one final gesture which he must have regretted as soon as he had made it. Robert Rauschenberg’s Rebus, an important combine painting created in 1955, had been consigned to Sotheby’s, New York, by the estate of Victor Ganz and had been purchased by the Swedish industrialist Hans Thulin for $5.75 million on 10 November 1988. But in his highly publicised quest to build a collection of contemporary art’s masterpieces, Thulin overextended himself and his creditors reoffered the picture at Sotheby’s, New York, on 30 April 1991, at least twelve months after the market’s fortunes had turned. On this occasion, Charles Saatchi made the winning bid of $6.6 million.

The price, well above the market’s expectation for a work which had appeared in auction so recently, reflects the quality of Rauschenberg’s early career, but also the tenacity of its new owner who, interestingly, was himself unloading a major package of works in the same auction: Carl Andre, Richard Artschwager, Jennifer Bartlett, Scott Burton, Georg Baselitz, Jonathan Borofsky, Dan Flavin, Philip Guston, Eva Hesse, Donald Judd, Jeff Koons, Sol LeWitt, Brice Marden, Agnes Martin, Elizabeth Murray, Sigmar Polke, Susan Rothenberg, Robert Ryman, Lucas Samaras, Frank Stella, Cy Twombly and Terry Winters.

But less than a year later, Rebus changed hands again, placed privately by Sotheby’s contemporary art department director Lucy Mitchell-Innes with the French collector François Pinault.

The new collection: the formative years

What must have prompted Saatchi’s speedy reconsideration of his purchase of Rebus was his accelerating interest in the work of a young generation of art school graduates based in London and mostly associated with Goldsmiths College. In 1990, he made his first acquisitions in this field, buying, on 27 February, a pair of medicine cabinets which Damien Hirst had shown in New Contemporaries at the ICA several months earlier. On 13 July, he acquired a second, more complex, work from Hirst, the notorious fly-killer sculpture, One thousand years, which the artist was exhibiting in Gambler at Building One.

One other young British artist caught Saatchi’s attention in 1990: Jake Chapman who, several years before he joined forces with his younger brother, Dinos, and turned his hand to fabricating mannequin mutants, had created an untitled rack of rifles which the collector acquired on 24 July. This work has never been illustrated nor exhibited.

By 1991, Saatchi, and a small circle of dealers including Jay Jopling and Karsten Schubert, had recognised the potential of young British art. New acquisitions gathered pace and included two domestic plaster sculptures by Rachel Whiteread as well as Ghost, the cast of the interior of a small room in the Holloway Road, which is regarded as the artist’s most important work; a “Dolphin painting” by Gary Hume; works by Terence Bond, Cecily Brown, John Greenwood, Alex Landrum, Langlands & Bell, Marc Quinn and Mark Wallinger.

Saatchi also made a fresh commitment to Hirst, from whom he acquired The lovers, four cabinets of glass jars filled with the internal organs of cows; Isolated elements swimming in the same direction for the purpose of understanding, a display case of preserved fish from Billingsgate Market, the pendant to which belongs to the collector and artist Danny Moynihan and is one of the rare natural history sculptures not to be controlled by Saatchi; and The physical impossibility of death in the mind of someone living, the tiger shark sculpture which has become the collection’s most celebrated symbol. “At a certain point Charles felt that the old collection was over and he was going to go on to form a new collection,” explains Victoria Miro.

The scope of the new collection

In preparing this account, The Art Newspaper was given unprecedented access to the Saatchi archive, which reveals that the collection of works purchased since 1990 is far larger than had previously been estimated.

Saatchi’s interest in young German art is properly documented from the monographic exhibition of Stephan Balkenhol in 1996 and the exhibition opening this month of Young German Artists 2 (11 September to 23 November). His involvement with younger American art is known from two exhibitions which took place at the beginning of last year; and next year he will be showing fresh acquisitions which include The patron of Ashley Bickerton and works by Michael Ashkin, John Currin, Tom Friedman, Clay Ketter, Robin Lowe, Sarah Morris, Elizabeth Peyton, Jessica Stockholder and Lisa Yuskavage (opening 23 April 1998).

The sheer scale of his engagement with young British artists eclipses his other interests now. Shark infested waters, the catalogue published in 1994 but now out of date in some respects, advertised the level of his commitment and his buying has accelerated during the last two years. He now owns some 875 works by the younger generation of British artists, some of whom will not be known even to contemporary art market specialists. He travels widely, visits dozens of exhibitions, looks with his eyes rather than his ears and follows his own council as much as recommendations from dealers and other advisors.

“He has always been his own man and known exactly what he wanted,” says Karsten Schubert, who has sold him paintings by Gary Hume and Glenn Brown, and a sculpture by Michael Landy, in addition to his initial purchases of Whiteread.

“He is the only person in the whole world collecting on this scale”, adds Victoria Miro. “No other collector has that commitment and passion. It is a genuine addiction.” In fact, it is known to be one of Saatchi’s disappointments that he has virtually no competition in the marketplace. Only the Greek collector Dakis Joannou has made a similar commitment to contemporary art with his support for Janine Antoni, Jeff Koons and Kiki Smith.

Hung, drawn and quartered

Maintaining and storing the collection, which currently totals some 1500 works of art in all media, is a mighty logistical exercise involving a large technical team. Aside from a personal choice reserved for Charles Saatchi’s home in Chelsea, and other works loaned to temporary exhibitions, the collection is housed at Momart’s storage facilities in east London.

Hirst’s tiger shark has its own flotation tank when it is not wanted for exhibition in its glass vitrine. Ghost breaks down into a nest of packing cases for safe keeping. “Rachel’s plaster sculpture is incredibly fragile,” reminds her former dealer Karsten Schubert. “After its exhibition at the Chisenhale Gallery, it went into storage and was damaged. When Charles bought it a couple of months later, he paid for major repairs. He spent more money salvaging and crating it than it cost him to buy.” Schubert says that its original price would have been “much less than £20,000.” In today’s market, with Whiteread established as one of the major artists of her generation, it might be worth £250,000.

Recognising value

Saatchi’s involvement with the discovery of younger schools of art has not precluded purchases of senior or established names. His affection for Paula Rego is well documented through the exhibition of her work which took place at his own gallery in 1994-95, and his subsequent acquisition of eight Dancing Ostriches, large pastel compositions which were created for Spellbound, the Hayward Gallery’s survey of art and film. He now owns 47 paintings and prints by Rego.

His summer exhibition of 15 sculptures by American Duane Hanson, an artist who would have fitted comfortably into the old collection, was one of the biggest surprises which he has sprung on a London audience.

Not yet as widely known are his recent purchases of the entire exhibition of Patrick Caulfield’s new paintings, eight large canvases, held at Waddington Galleries in March-April of this year; and a collection of 26 pictures by Alex Katz, supplied by Marlborough Galleries, New York, and spanning 25 years of the artist’s career. Katz will be shown at the Saatchi Gallery at the beginning of next year, but already catalogues of these two new sets of acquisitions have been published.

One dealer explains, “Charles is interested in older artists, particularly if they have not received the attention they deserve and have not been recognised by the art market. By making a bulk purchase, he is able to negotiate reasonable terms, discounts and delayed payments.”

But disposals continue to balance the books. One recent deal involved his collection of paintings by Lucian Freud which was sold to the London agent Thomas Gibson, reportedly acting on behalf of a large art investment fund which he is advising.

Messrs Saatchi & Gagosian Ltd?

Just over a year ago, London’s contemporary art market was teased and tortured by rumours of a proposed trading partnership involving Charles Saatchi and Larry Gagosian. Informal conversations are known to have taken place with prospective employees. But, to the relief of those London dealers who have profited handsomely from Saatchi’s interest in artists whom they represent, no decision has been taken. One confidant believes that the subject is “off the boil”, but might be revived at a later date. “Charles has been so consumed by everything that is happening and he hasn’t had time to develop a plan.” Private dealer Ivor Braka summarises the situation: “In London, there are no well-capitalised contemporary art galleries trading in the secondary market, apart from Anthony d’Offay and White Cube. There’s room for Charles.”

The special case of Jenny Saville

Intensifying the speculation that Saatchi will launch a commercial operation in due course is the relationship which he has struck with various younger artists who do not yet have gallery representation. None of the five participants in Young British Artists VI staged at the Saatchi Gallery a year ago—Jordan Baseman, Daniel Coombs, Claude Heath, John Isaacs and Nina Saunders—is aligned to a dealer. Each made sales from the studio and has completed new work to Saatchi’s order.

But one artist enjoys an even more special situation. She is Jenny Saville who took part in the third edition of Young British Artists in 1994. Saatchi spotted her paintings at her degree show at the Glasgow School of Art and invited her to come to London to look at his exhibition space. As a result of that visit, she created a series of pictures with which he was reported to be absolutely delighted, and she has been working exclusively for him since then. Saatchi has paid her studio expenses and a salary and, in return, expects to receive some fifteen new canvases when the project is completed. Two pictures from this new series will be previewed in Sensation!. According to one insider, “Charles made the arrangement because he adores her work, but he was anxious to prevent her from signing with the wrong gallery.”

‘Sensation!’ the known and the new

When Norman Rosenthal, Secretary of exhibitions at the Royal Academy of Arts, announced Sensation! (18 September-28 December) six months ago, the initial response was not particularly enthusiastic. Saatchi’s collection of young British art was well-known through his own programme of exhibitions; and it hardly warranted the fresh wave of publicity that a major West End venue would bring. The show also seemed to be a hasty and inexpensive solution to an embarrassing gap created by the cancellation of the proposed tour of The age of modernism, the huge survey of 20th-century art recently on show in Berlin. But as the opening date approaches and more details are released, the mood has changed and media and art-world interest is mounting.

All the important works which Saatchi has accumulated during the last eight years will be included: Hirst’s One thousand years and The physical impossibility of death in the mind of someone living; Gary Hume’s Begging for it and Tony Blackburn; Two fried eggs and a kebab by Sarah Lucas; Marc Quinn’s Self; Gavin Turk’s Pop; and Whiteread’s Ghost. This material will be familiar to an audience which has tracked the series of Young British Artists exhibitions which Saatchi initiated in Boundary Road in 1992.

Richard Billingham’s photography portfolio Ray’s a laugh featured in the exhibition Sensation! at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, in 1997

But what gives such an interesting twist to Sensation! is the surprise of new names, new works and new media. Well over one-half of the participants in Sensation!, no less than 26 of the 42 artists who have been selected, have never been shown in Boundary Road: Darren Almond, Jake and Dinos Chapman, Adam Chodzko, Mat Collishaw, Mark Francis, Mona Hatoum, Michael Landy, Abigail Lane, Jason Martin, Chris Ofili, Richard Patterson and Cerith Wyn Evans are some of them. Tracey Emin’s celebrated tent, entitled Everyone I have ever slept with 1963-95, is his most exciting recent acquisition. It could have been bought rather inexpensively 18 months ago, but will have made a bigger dent in Saatchi’s pocket when he liberated it from London-based Swiss dealer Eric Franck at the beginning of the summer.

The familiar faces will be showing unfamiliar works alongside their masterpieces: Quinn and a new glass sculpture created in Venice in 1996; Whiteread with One hundred spaces, coloured resin casts of the void beneath a kitchen stool, which she created for the Carnegie International, Pittsburgh in 1995; and Hirst with two natural history vitrines which were previewed in Gagosian’s New York exhibition in May 1996 but have not been exhibited subsequently. The bacon slicer sculpture, entitled This little pig went to market…, had been purchased by Ivor Braka but Saatchi offered him a deal which he could not refuse: his investment of $100,000 returned with a medicine cabinet vitrine, worth £50,000, as a sweetener.

Chroniclers of the Saatchi taste will be interested to learn how much photography and video he has been acquiring: Ray’s a laugh, Richard Billingham’s portfolio of images documenting the squalor of his family home, for which he was awarded the inaugural Citibank Private Bank Photography Prize at the beginning of this year; and videos by the three of most innovative British artists working in the medium: Sam Taylor-Wood, Mark Wallinger and Gillian Wearing.

Yours disgustedly

At the end of July, the popular press awoke to Myra, Marcus Harvey’s huge portrait of Myra Hindley which he has based on the vintage black and white photograph of this child murderer and fabricated by using the cast of a child’s hand as his brush. Letters from the families of the victims and from Hindley herself expressed disgust with the picture’s quest for sensation, and the Academicians were due to debate the matter at the end of August.

Even if Myra is withdrawn, there is plenty of material to keep RA Friends nicely disgusted with contemporary art. That job will be adequately performed by Quinn’s self-portrait head cast in eight pints of his own blood and mounted on a refrigeration unit; by Sarah Lucas’s suggestive arrangement of melons, oranges and a cucumber on a mattress; by Chris Ofili’s pats of elephant dung attached to a canvas; and by Damien Hirst’s spin picture entitled Beautiful, kiss-my-fucking-ass painting. The catalogue is published by Thames & Hudson, 180 ills.

The Saatchi Gallery is at 98a Boundary Road, London NW8.

Charles Saatchi: the man and his money

Charles Saatchi (born 1943) is the elder son of Nathan and Daisy Saatchi. Together with his younger brother Maurice, who was created a life peer in 1996, he founded the advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi in 1970. In December 1972, the agency received a stock market listing at an adjusted price of 48.4 pence. A trail of aggressive acquisitions, a bright business team which originally included PR gurus Tim Bell and Martin Sorrell, and a flair for words and pictures earned a glamorous City rating and clients to match. The agency invented “Labour isn’t working” for the Conservative Party; the pregnant man for the Health Education Authority; the Silk Cut campaign for Gallaher Tobacco–its most enduring creation; and relaunched British Airways as “the world’s favourite airline”.

The share price peaked at £41.67 in April 1986. But the City’s enchantment with Saatchi & Saatchi began to evaporate when it attempted to mount bids for Midland Bank, Hill Samuel and Morgan Grenfell in 1987. Its subsequent troubles, the acrimonious disagreements with the new management which had rescued the company’s ailing fortunes, and the eventual resignation of Maurice on 16 December 1994, and Charles exactly two months later, are documented in Kevin Goldman’s Conflicting accounts (Simon & Schuster 1997).Together the two brothers reinvented themselves as M&C Saatchi, dramatically snatching the prize account of British Airways from Cordiant, as Saatchi and Saatchi became in March 1995. Confusingly, Cordiant has retained the name of the Saatchi & Saatchi Agency for its UK operations, and plans to create Saatchi & Saatchi Worldwide when it demerges into three companies at the end of this year.

In just two and a half years, M&C Saatchi has established itself with unprecedented speed, securing the accounts of Dixons, the electrical goods retailer, Gallaher Tobacco and Mirror Group, and becoming the eighth largest agency in Britain with billings of £175 million. Interestingly, Charles Saatchi’s financial fortunes received their biggest boost through his involvement, with Maurice, Louis Dreyfus and Johann Eliasch, in a rescue plan for German sportswear business Adidas, in which he is believed to have turned an investment of £750,000 into £9.5 million in 1994. He is hoping to repeat that success with a new investment in Head, the troubled Austrian sporting goods company. In the latest issue of People of today, Charles Saatchi lists his recreation as karting.


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