Pumped and Dumped: The Great Saatchi Sell Off

Thinking Big: The Great Saatchi Sell Off

Lot 38. Björn Dahlem: The Milky Way. Wood, neon lamps and milk bottle. dimensions variable, 2007

Charles Saatchi will be auctioning large-scale work from his collection this October. Timed to coincide with Frieze week, “Thinking Big” comes with a twist: prospective buyers will find there are no estimates or reserves for the sculptures and installations being auctioned.

Thinking Big features the work of 50 artists who have been shown at the Saatchi Gallery, including YBAs, such as Tracey Emin and the Chapman brothers, as well as newer talents such as Toby Ziegler, Kader Attia, Conrad Shawcross, Kris Martin and Sterling Ruby. The work will be exhibited 10am-6pm 12-20 October 2013 at a former West London postal sorting office on New Oxford Street, near Holborn, London.

Charles Saatchi has no compunction about getting rid of work when he tires of it, which can send art values plummeting. Sean Scully, an Irish-born painter who does large geometric abstract oils that look a little like checkerboards, has complained that Saatchi pumped and then dumped his work in the 1980s. Among the many leading contemporary artists included in the present sale are Berlinde de Bruyckere, whose work at the Belgian Pavilion was a highlight of the 2013 Venice Biennale; Gert and Uwe Tobias, who had a solo show at London’s Whitechapel Gallery earlier this year; and David Altmejd, Karla Black and Liu Wei, all of whom were selected for Art Basel’s Art Unlimited show of large-scale sculpture this year.

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Lot 4. Kader Attia. Ghost. Shaped aluminium foil, in two hundred and sixty-four parts. Dimensions variable, 2007. (this work is number three from an edition of three)

From the start Saatchi did things differently from other collectors.  “He likes digestible ideas, in the form of art that can appeal to a mass audience–just like advertising,” observes Manhattan dealer Robert Goff, who has sold Saatchi the work of Iraqi-born artist Ahmed Alsoudani, 35. “Because he’s private, he can move quickly, he can take risks, he doesn’t care what the back draft is,” adds Goff. Charles Saatchi, a British businessman and the second of four sons born to a wealthy Iraqi Jewish family in Baghdad, Iraq, co-founded the advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi. With his brother Maurice, two brothers led that business – the world’s largest advertising agency in the 1980s – until they were forced out in 1995. In the same year, the Saatchi brothers formed a new agency called M&C Saatchi. 

In 1985 Saatchi opened his first public venue, in a spare, white gallery in the leafy London neighborhood of St. John’s Wood, which quickly became a destination for art lovers. Saatchi’s chief contribution: displaying a long list of pop artists and minimalists who had yet to get much of an audience in the U.K. That included works by Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, spare monochromes by Brice Marden, wood and concrete sculptures by Donald Judd and basketballs floating in Plexiglas tanks by Jeff Koons.

If he liked an artist’s work, he bought a lot of it, and he was intent on showing it to the public–sometimes, apparently, for its shock value. “I buy art that I like,” he says concisely. “I buy it to show it off in exhibitions. Then, if I feel like it, I sell it and buy more art.” Showing off is a good way to inflate either an ego or the value of a collection. French tycoon François Pinault has two museums in Venice, the Ukrainian Victor Pinchuk has one in Kiev, and Eli Broad has a museum within a museum in Los Angeles. Saatchi got there two decades before the current crop of exhibitionists.

Saatchi has often traded works that he has collected, selling works privately and through auction houses. The most famous of his disposals is Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living ,1991.  If other press accounts are accurate, in 1992 he bought a formaldehyde-encased shark by Damien Hirst for $84,000 and in 2005 sold it to hedge fund billionaire Steven Cohen for $13 million. The shark-in-formaldehyde installation was commissioned by Saatchi.  Many times he has gotten in early and turned a handsome profit when he later sold. In 1991 he bought a frozen sculpture of Marc Quinn’s head filled with 9 pints of the artist’s blood, for $22,000, then sold it in 2005 for $2.7 million, according to the Guardian. “I never think too much about the market,” Saatchi says about speculating in art.

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Jitish Kallat, Public Notice 2, painted fibreglass, executed in 2007. Image courtesy of Saatchi Gallery, London.

Philippa Adams, Senior Director, Saatchi Gallery said: “Thinking Big aims to provide the broadest possible access and opportunity to museums, institutions and collectors alike by offering these works with no estimates and no reserves. This will be the first time in history that works of this scale will be so readily accessible. To this end, our endeavour is to reflect the Gallery’s commitment to constantly support and showcase emerging talent. We hope this new platform will bridge new dialogues and the works from this sale will be seen by new audiences across the world.”

In 2011, Charles Saatchi proposed turning the Saatchi Gallery into a “Museum of Contemporary Art for London”, offering around 200 works as a gift to the nation, including pieces by Tracey Emin, Grayson Perry and the Chapman brothers. But talks with the government, which was taken by surprise by the offer, have come to nothing. Sticking points included the fact that the Saatchi Gallery only leases the former Duke of York’s barracks rather than owning it. Moreover, the collector also wanted the proposed institution to be able to sell some works from the gift to buy others. The titles of individual works offered was never disclosed. It is unclear whether any of the works to be included in “Thinking Big” formed part of the proposed gift.

Francis Outred, Christie’s Head of Post-War & Contemporary Art, Europe: “I hope Thinking Big inspires people in the way I was inspired by the Saatchi Gallery as a teenager in the late 1980s. It was a shot in the arm – nowhere else in London showed new art on such a scale. The Saatchi’s combination of showing the very best of the new, together with its mission to educate, has inspired a whole generation of collectors, curators, gallerists and, of course artists. In the midst of the current global interest in contemporary art, we can only guess at how different it would be without the Saatchi Gallery’s continual support of new artists.”

The auction itself takes place at Christie’s, 8 King Street on Thursday 17 October 2013. Proceeds from the sale will go towards supporting free public access to the Saatchi Gallery and its education programme. Philippa Adams, Senior Director, Saatchi Gallery: “Thinking Big aims to provide the broadest possible access and opportunity to museums, institutions and collectors alike by offering these works with no estimates and no reserves. This will be the first time in history that works of this scale will be so readily accessible. To this end, our endeavor is to reflect the Gallery’s commitment to constantly support and showcase emerging talent. We hope this new platform will bridge new dialogues and the works from this sale will be seen by new audiences across the world.”

sortingofficetop

Exhibition: Thinking Big 12-20 October 2013
Hours: 10am-6pm Daily
Location: The Sorting Office, 21-31 New Oxford Street, London, WC1A 1AP (Map Below)

Auction: Thinking Big Auction: 5pm, Thursday 17 October 2013
Location: Christie’s, 8 King Street St. James’s, London, SW1Y 6QT

*All images courtesy of Christie’s Images Ltd.

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About Art Selectronic

Art Selectronic is an artist-led initiative, that supports grass-roots contemporary art that remains unswayed by fashion, trends or the whims of government funding. The project involves ongoing research into the placing of contemporary art, it’s audiences and it’s relationship to the everyday. We place great emphasis on context. Our mission is to support new works of contemporary art and foster an audience from a wide range of backgrounds.
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