NEW YORK—When Charles Saatchi paid a pre-opening visit to the Royal Academy of Art’s “Schools Show”—an annual exhibition that highlights the work of its art students—he snapped up the majority of three artists’ works on display. Press reports called it “the equivalent of the lottery,” and “the stuff of dreams” for the students involved. The mere mention of interest from the 65-year-old collector—who made his fortune in advertising and whose new 50,000-square-foot gallery in London’s Chelsea district is scheduled to open this summer—is enough to send an artist’s prices soaring.
Saatchi tends to seek out young, obscure artists and buy their work in bulk. He is largely credited with thrusting such artists as Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and Jenny Saville into the limelight in this way in the early 1990s, and their careers have thrived ever since. Some artists and collectors, however, are wary of his attention and his considerable influence, realizing that market buzz can die down or die out completely when Saatchi loses interest in a particular artist or decides to sell off his or her work.
Professor Maurice Cockrill, keeper of the Royal Academy of the Arts, told ARTnewsletter that Saatchi “appeared in the doorway” the morning after a private viewing of the show (which ran June 9–22). Cockrill said he was not surprised to see Saatchi, given his visits to previous student shows, where he had also purchased works.
Saatchi purchased a work by British artist Angus Sanders-Dunnachie (b. 1980) for £7,900 ($15,500), seven of ten landscapes by Jill Mason for up to £600 each ($1,180), and all thirteen paintings by South African artist Carla Busuttil (b. 1982) priced at £450/2,500 ($890/5,000).
Each of Sanders-Dunnachie’s works consists of five rows of layered painted-plasterboard cutout sculptures with images taken from cartoons and mass-media sources such as The Simpsons and Disney characters.
Cockrill describes Mason’s paintings as “not-quite-real landscapes” turned sideways, with the sky appearing on the left or right, featuring strange objects that allude to people or buildings.
Saatchi paid particular attention to Busuttil’s works, distorted portraits of current and former political figures, including three South African leaders and former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, says Cockrill. The works are painted in a colorful, primitive style with no facial features save for the occasional crudely drawn eyes or teeth.
Busuttil’s paintings have a “political dimension about them,” says Cockrill; they are about “the abuse of power and authority.” According to Cockrill, the portraits of Thatcher, which he called “barely recognizable,” appealed to Saatchi, who “cut his teeth on the Tory government and is very familiar with what Thatcher looks like.”
The artists themselves were surprised and excited by the news of Saatchi’s purchases. Busuttil told ARTnewsletter she learned about Saatchi’s interest in her work a few hours before the opening of the show. “It was a pleasant surprise,” she says. Asked about the price Saatchi paid for the group of works, she says: “He did get a discount for all the works but I felt the price that was paid was fair, considering he bought all of my works on show.”
In an e-mail to ARTnewsletter, Sanders-Dunnachie wrote that he was “incredibly surprised when he made the offer, and very happy that the work, which is very delicate and takes up a lot of space, will be stored and looked after properly.” He said that Saatchi asked for a discount, “which is normal for a ‘bulk buy’ and I was happy with the price.”
News of Saatchi’s latest acquisitions quickly prompted strong reactions from critics, artists and other market observers. “Charles Saatchi: A Blessing or a Curse for Young Artists?” read one headline in The Independent. In the accompanying piece, Arifa Akbar wrote that “not every artist whose work is snapped up is guaranteed success and continued support. . . . The dealer has a reputation for brutally pruning his collection . . .”
In an opinion piece in the Times, headlined “Charles Saatchi and the Fine Art of Making Money,” David Lee criticized the collector’s “‘wrap ’em up, I’ll take the lot’ approach to artistic discernment,” which Lee said “tells us a great deal about him and the warped modus operandi of a contemporary art market where reputations are conjured out of nothing.”
Cockrill tries to maintain a realistic perspective on it all, and encourages the students to do so as well. He says there is a lot of debate about “whether this is a good thing—artists being corralled by a powerful dealer. It’s not a bad thing. It’s up to the strength and perseverance of the students to survive that. I make it clear to them, ‘Don’t expect this to go on. As everyone knows, he picks [artists] up and drops them.’”
Perhaps the most prominent example of an artist whose market faltered when Saatchi sold off his works was Italian Neo-Expressionist painter Sandro Chia. Saatchi acquired considerable holdings of Chia’s work in the ’80s and sold them soon after. Some experts say Chia’s market has never fully recovered.
Still, other artists, most notably Damien Hirst, have understandably become concerned when Saatchi has made known his intention to sell their works. In late 2003, Saatchi sold 12 works by Hirst back to the artist and his dealer, Jay Jopling of London’s White Cube, for a reported $15 million. Individual asking prices included £1 million ($1.7 million) for This Little Piggy Went to Market, a sliced pig in formaldehyde, and £1.5 million ($2.6 million) for Some Comfort Gained, 1996, a dissected cow in formaldehyde.
The Saatchi Gallery was quick to deny reports that Saatchi was selling off nearly his entire collection of works by Hirst—more than 40 pieces—issuing a release stating that the gallery had sold 12 works back to White Cube and noting that gallery visitors could still see “the shark, the sheep, dots, the butterflies, the fish, the flies,” among other works. By that time, Hirst’s works had already risen steeply in value. Spot paintings, once available for $20,000, were selling for $450,000 at auction. Currently, the highest price for a Hirst spot painting at auction is £1.8 million ($3.5 million), realized at Phillips, de Pury & Company in London last February.
Early in 2005, in a highly publicized deal, Saatchi sold Hirst’s shark submerged in formaldehyde, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, to U.S. collector and hedge fund manager Steven Cohen for $12 million (the work is now on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).
Saatchi continued trading in and trading up his holdings of the so-called Young British Artists (YBAs) whose careers he helped to launch. In 1998 Saatchi had persuaded London dealer Anthony d’Offay to give Australian-born hyper-realist sculptor Ron Mueck a show. That year, four works were exhibited at d’Offay’s gallery, priced at £10,000/20,000 ($16,000/32,000). One, Ghost, was sold to the Tate Gallery; another, Untitled (Man Under Cardigan), went to collectors Kent and Vicki Logan; and two, Mask and Angel, fell to Saatchi. After that show, d’Offay raised the prices, and Saatchi bought no more.
Then in March of 2005, Saatchi sold much of his collection of works by Mueck. New York dealer James Cohan, who represents Mueck in North America, confirmed that he sold two 1997 works by the artist, Angel and Mask, to “prominent U.S. collectors” on behalf of Saatchi. Trade sources said that other Mueck works were handled by the Gagosian Gallery.