Myriam Ullens, a key art collector who, with her husband Guy, transformed the Chinese art scene, died at 70 on Wednesday after being shot outside her apartment in Lasne, Belgium.
Multiple Belgian publications have reported on Wednesday that Ullens’s stepson Nicolas was alleged shooter. An investigation was being conducted when those reports emerged.
According to VRT, Ullens was already dead in her car by the time emergency services arrived at the scene. Guy was also injured during the incident and was taken to the hospital for his leg.
On Thursday, the Walloon Brabant Public Prosecutor’s Office confirmed that Nicolas had shot Myriam, according to the Brussels Times. That morning, Nicolas turned himself in, saying he had killed her amid an ongoing inheritance dispute regarding Guy’s wealth.
The prosecutor’s office stated that Nicolas had fired six shots into the car where Myriam and Guy were. Nicolas is set to appear in court on April 3.
Within the international art world, the Ullenses are highly regarded for boosting the profile of Chinese contemporary art. Myriam and Guy, who ranked on the annual ARTnews Top 200 Collectors list between 2008 and 2015, amassed a collection of around 2,000 artworks, many of them by Chinese artists.
In 2008, the couple founded a private museum then known as the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing. It has since been renamed the UCCA Center for Contemporary Art; it now also operates spaces in Beidaihe and Shanghai as well, and is considered one of the top venues for contemporary art in China, a country with numerous private museums.
“The vision and passion of Myriam Ullens—her love for art, belief in cultural exchange, and commitment to helping others—are at the core of UCCA’s history and values,” UCCA director Philip Tinari said in a statement. “We are shocked and saddened by her death, and will remember her strength, style, creativity, and generosity as we carry forward the work of the institution that she and Guy so generously founded and nurtured through its first decade.”
Born in 1952, Ullens’s activities were hardly limited to collecting. In 1993, she launched Happy House Kathmandu, a Nepalese organization that her biography on her foundation’s website describes as “a mix of orphanages, intensive care units for poorly fed babies.” And, having survived a cancer diagnosis, she later founded a cancer charity foundation that remains active.
In 2011, she launched the Brussels-based fashion label Maison Ullens, whose garments have been famously worn by Melania Trump and others. (A Maison Ullens spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)
With Guy, whom she married in 1999, she assembled a world-class collection over the course of several decades. (Guy had begun buying art in the ’60s, long before he wedded Myriam.) Their holdings of Chinese art are particularly deep, with works by Huang Yong Ping, Wang Jianwei, Xu Zhen, and many others among them, though they have also collected art by many others hailing from outside China, from Rashid Johnson to Tracey Emin.
The couple began by collecting Chinese antiquities such as centuries-old scroll paintings and later moved on to buying contemporary art.
Their commitment to China ran deep. In 2007, Guy and Myriam famously sold their valuable Turners at Sotheby’s in order to fund the opening of the Ullens Center. The cache of works went for nearly $22 million, exceeding expectations at the time. After the museum opened, the couple would continue to sell works to keep the center open, in sales that were often closely watched.
Their collection of Chinese art continued to grow, and in 2009, the New York Times reported that they had gathered one of the “biggest collections of Chinese contemporary art.”
Myriam said her and Guy’s holdings were always changing, telling Ocula, “A collection is like a living breathing body. It evolves in an organic manner.”
Update, 3/30/23, 7:55 a.m.: This article has been updated with a statement from UCCA director Philip Tinari.
Update, 3/30/23, 3:05 p.m.: This article has been updated to include more details about Myriam Ullens’s killing by Nicolas.