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Saatchi’s Answers Raise Questions

Art-world figures take issue with recap on ’80s resales that reclusive collector offers in new book.

NEW YORK—Charles Saatchi, the art collector and former advertising mogul, is famed almost as much for his reclusiveness as for his ability to jumpstart—or stall—artists’ careers. In a new book, My Name Is Charles Saatchi and I Am an Artoholic (out next month in the United States from Phaidon Press), Saatchi partially lifts the veil on his life by answering questions on topics ranging from his favorite artists to his influence on the contemporary-art market and other collectors to what makes him laugh.

Subtitled Everything You Need to Know About Art, Ads, Life, God and Other Mysteries—and Weren’t Afraid to Ask… and written in a question-and-answer format, the book reveals Saatchi to be by turns frank, humorous, mysterious, glib and sometimes downright opaque. For example, in response to the question “Why don’t you attend your own openings?” Saatchi responds, “I don’t go to other people’s openings, so I extend the same courtesy to my own.” According to a description of the book on the publisher’s Web site, the questions have all been put to Saatchi by “leading journalists and critics as well as by members of the public” over the years. However, none of these people are identified in the book. Even the question of why Saatchi, who typically refuses to be interviewed, has decided to answer such questions publicly now is not fully addressed. His response to the question “Why now?” is simply, “Now that I have the zeal of the newly converted, I feel compelled to proselytize.”

Saatchi and the BBC have plans for a reality television show documenting the U.K.-wide search for an artist who possesses the “talent, ambition and passion to make great art,” as it is described in a memo from Saatchi’s office. A panel including Kate Bush, Frank Cohen (known in Britain as “the Charles Saatchi of the North”), Matt Collings and Tracey Emin selected six undiscovered artists from more than 3,000 applications. The four-part series, which will be broadcast on BBC Two next month, will reveal which artist was selected by the panel and Saatchi to be included in the exhibition “Newspeak: British Art Now” at the State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg (Oct. 25–Jan. 17).

The Saatchi Gallery, London, reopened in its latest location, the 70,000-square-foot Duke of York Headquarters building on King’s Road in Chelsea, late last year. The gallery’s previous location was County Hall, on London’s South Bank, which the collector left after a breakdown in relations with the building’s landlords.

The most frequently repeated allegations about the collector—that he effectively destroyed or depressed the careers of Sean Scully and Italian Expressionist painter Sandro Chia by collecting their work in depth and then offloading his holdings in bulk—are among the first he deals with in his book. Of Chia, Saatchi writes, “At last count I read that I had flooded the market with 23 of his paintings. I only ever owned seven paintings by Chia. One morning I offered three of them back to Angela Westwater, his New York dealer, where I had originally bought them, and four back to Bruno Bischofberger, his European dealer, where again, I had bought those. Chia’s work was tremendously desirable at the time and all seven went to big-shot collectors or museums by close of day.”

Westwater disputes some of Saatchi’s account, namely the timeline of sales and his assertion that the works he offered to her were all originally bought from her. In a 1988 Vanity Fair article titled “Art Breaking,” Anthony Haden-Guest explored the extent of Saatchi’s involvement in Chia’s so-called fall from grace. According to the story, there were six Chia paintings in question, and Saatchi, who wanted to expand his holdings of work by Andy Warhol, made an offer to Westwater to swap a Chia painting, Melancholic Camping, 1982, for a higher-valued Warhol silk-screen diptych, Blue Electric Chair, with the difference in price to be made up in either cash or art. Westwater, who confirmed the details as they were laid out in the Vanity Fair story, was reportedly “happy to agree” to the swap—she pointed out to ARTnewsletter, however, that she had not originally sold Melancholic Camping to Saatchi.

According to Vanity Fair, then Museum of Modern Art curator Kynaston McShine wanted to include Melancholic Camping in a major exhibition to inaugurate the museum’s expansion. “Saatchi telephoned Westwater, but couldn’t reach her,” the article says. “Westwater is convinced that Saatchi was trying to call off the swap and that when he found he had lost one of Chia’s best paintings, it soured him on the rest.”

Soon after Saatchi sold it to the gallery, Sperone Westwater sold Melancholic Camping to Chicago collector Gerry Elliott for a price in the low six figures. Another of the six Chia paintings was sold to German collector Erich Marx for six figures; two others were sold to unidentified buyers and the remaining two were absorbed into stock, according to Vanity Fair. “Unquestionably, though, Saatchi’s action threw a scare into some collectors,” wrote Haden-Guest.

Artist Attempted to Purchase Works

When Chia got wind of Saatchi’s interest in selling off some or all of his works, the artist offered to buy them back. In a letter to ARTnews magazine in 1985, Chia wrote that he was “distressed and disappointed” by Saatchi’s refusal to sell the work to him. “I had the temerity to send him a telegram conveying my opinion that he was not a positive influence in the art world,” he said. “I believe the result of that telegram was Mr. Saatchi’s campaign to publicize his sales of my works as a ‘dispersal,’ with all the resulting innuendos, rather than the purely profit-making operation that it was.” Saatchi’s then-curator Julia Ernst’s response was also quoted in ARTnews: “It was made clear to Mr. Chia that the transaction with his dealers was already underway before Mr. Chia asked to buy the paintings himself.”

In an interview via telephone from Italy, Chia told ARTnewsletter, “I think Mr. Saatchi is finally correct in saying that he only sold seven of my paintings at a handsome profit. He is the one who started saying that he dumped my work and destroyed my career, which was absolutely not true.” Chia conceded, however, that the controversy became more public than it should have (including his assertion in a magazine article that Saatchi was a “vulgar person”), and that things had changed noticeably for him in the art world. According to the artist, dealers who had been very happy to handle his work “all of a sudden stopped calling me, along with many other people.”

The changes were not all bad, though, he said. “I freed myself from the old mechanism and in a sense I had freed myself from the burden of the gallery. I’m independent, so, thanks to Saatchi.” Currently Chia is not represented by any one dealer, but continues to paint and show his work. Six of his paintings are on view in the Italian pavilion at the Venice Biennale through November 22. He also had a solo show at the Charles Cowles Gallery, New York, late last year. (The gallery has since closed.)

At Fault?

Asked in the book whether he feels a “sense of personal responsibility” for having sold off artists’ work in bulk, Saatchi responds, “Of course some artists get upset if you sell their work. But it doesn’t help them whimpering about it, and telling anyone who will listen.”

In a phone interview from Switzerland, Bischofberger told ARTnewsletter he had acquired three of the Chia works that Saatchi sold at the time, but insisted the sale had nothing to do with damaging the artist’s market. “Chia had done a lot of masterpieces from mid-1978 to mid-1982,” he said. “Since then I have never seen a great painting from him, just a good one. I should know. I was so involved as his art dealer, together with Sperone. I saw the whole boom.” Each side has pointed fingers at the other for fueling the extensive publicity surrounding the sale.

“Seven paintings is nothing. No one would have known about it,” Bischofberger said, if Chia had not done so much to publicize the fact of Saatchi’s sale by talking to writers and other art-world insiders. “I love his early paintings. I still have some in my collection. But Chia needed an excuse because his paintings had become less good since the middle of ’82.”

Today the market for Chia’s work is not quite thriving, but a number of pieces have fetched six-figure auction prices. Nine of the top ten public prices for the artist were achieved in the past four years. The auction record is $514,360, paid for the oil on canvas The Pharmacist’s Son, 1981, at Christie’s in London in October 2007. In May of that year, a buyer paid $275,750 for an untitled 1984 oil, collage and mixed media on canvas at Sotheby’s in Milan.

Similar accusations were directed at Saatchi for his sale of several works by Scully in the late 1980s. At the height of the art market, Saatchi sold five Scully paintings for $400,000 each, which was “just above the record price” at the time, and “a very nice business deal” given that he had purchased the works a few years earlier for $20,000 each, according to Mary Sabbatino, vice president of Galerie Lelong, New York, which represents the artist. In the book, Saatchi brushes off allegations of harming the market for Scully, saying, “I did own about five of his works but as his paintings now sell for $800,000+ at auction, I don’t think it sounds like I’ve destroyed his market completely.”

“I don’t think collectors can make or break an artist’s market,” Sabbatino said. “That is done by the quality of the artist’s work. His buying and selling had very little effect on the Scully market, which has continued to rise.” Scully’s auction prices are stronger than ever, with the two-dozen highest all having been achieved within the past four years. The record for a work by the artist at auction is the $1.3 million paid for the oil painting The Valencia Wall, 2006, at Sotheby’s in London in July of last year, far surpassing the estimate of $686,000/881,500. By comparison, in 2001 the auction record for a work by Scully was $341,000, which had been achieved in 1990 for an untitled 1985 oil painting at Sotheby’s in New York.

Asked whether he has “distorted the market by being such an influential buyer,” Saatchi says, “I have been asked this question before and I still haven’t got to grips with it. I always thought that what people bought and sold was by definition ‘the market.’”

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