A Mirror to China's Art Scene

Swiss businessman Uli Sigg talks about his collection and why he's not selling

With more than 1,400 works from 200 different Chinese contemporary artists, Swiss businessman Uli Sigg has amassed the world's most comprehensive collection of Chinese contemporary art. Sigg lived in China in the 1980s while working for Schindler Lifts, a manufacturer of escalators and elevators. Yet it wasn't until he returned to China as Swiss ambassador in 1995 that he began collecting.

He spoke to BusinessWeek Correspondent Frederik Balfour on the sidelines of the Christie's Art Auction in Hong Kong about the genesis of his collection, motivations of contemporary artists, and the recent skyrocketing prices of Chinese art (see BW Online, 5/25/06, "China: Cultural Evolution").What follows are edited excerpts.

Why did you start collecting Chinese art?

In the first place, I looked at Chinese art according to my personal tastes, but I didn't find much in the early 1980s. But in the 1990s I realized nobody was systematically collecting Chinese contemporary art, either in China or outside -- not institutions, not individuals. So I decided to create a documentation to mirror Chinese art production.

What role do your personal tastes play here?

My personal tastes are not so important, rather, I try to have a reasonable collection mirroring what Chinese artists are concerned with. Some say something about China or China's art creation, but aren't necessarily my favorites, still they belong. I have more of a museum approach than a private-collector approach.

But you do make the works available to the public?

Yes, I feel it's an obligation as a collector. The Mahjong exhibition [the first time his works were shown publicly] last year in Bern showed about 320 works in two venues, and Mahjong will be shown in Hamburg in September.

Do you plan eventually to establish a permanent collection in a museum?

For now, mine is a self-imposed mission, and at this point I'm responsible to myself, though it's my intention to show it to the public, ideally to the Chinese public. But conditions there aren't mature enough yet, and a certain number of my works could not be shown.

My main reason to collect was I thought here is the biggest cultural space in the world, yet there is a gap of about 20 years. Normally a museum or institution would document this period, but official China has ignored contemporary art, but for a few exceptions with a small section of academic paintings associated with the official artist associations. But it does not cover media, photography, installations, or performance art.

Do you think commercial success has made Chinese contemporary painters complacent?

For some artists the temptation to copy themselves is just too big because the rewards are so spectacular. But others continue their research and continuously develop. But these temptations to artists are comparable to Western art situations. They are not unique to China but they are new to China.

Which artists are caught in the same mold, and which ones are breaking new ground?

I do not mention names. I collect 200 artists, if I mention one or two I tend to get into problems. They are my friends. I don't want to get into that kind of discussion. There are many artists which fall into one pattern, and many who fall into the other.

Why did you establish the Chinese Contemporary Art Awards [CCAA]?

My reasons were twofold: to encourage Chinese contemporary artists and to expose Chinese art works to important international curators like Harald Szeeman, Alanna Heiss, Hou Hanru (who have sat as jurors for the competition established in 1998 and held every two years) and Roger Buergel.

What do you think of the prices here at the Christie's auction?

They are out of control for some works. Of course there is an explosion, but I don't think it's that different from the global mainstream art in terms of pricing. Comparatively speaking only a few Chinese are buying, they buy the very famous artists, creating a demand beyond what the artist can produce.

If you could only keep one work what would it be?

A big installation of 132 Neolithic vases by Ai Weiwei. A fourth of them are covered with industrial white paint, even though they are 5,000 years old.

What advice do you have for collectors of Chinese art?

Look at a lot of works, good and bad, look at catalogues and books. And look at international art so as to have more of a judgment which allows you to position Chinese art in a broad context. This is what people don't do, so they might overestimate an artist's accomplishment which they wouldn't do if they were familiar with world art.

How do you keep up with new art?

I visit China six to eight times a year, though not exclusively to buy art. I am the vice-chairman of a media group [Ringier of Switzerland], on the advisory board of China Development Bank, and am involved in other projects, such as bringing a group of Swiss architects to China to design the Olympic national stadium. I visit many cities. Wherever I go I try to see new artists and visit old ones. Also the CCAA allows me to see new works.

Do you buy at auctions?

From time to time, but I'm not a regular buyer, except in some special situations.

Such as?

The most recent purchase I made was of a Cultural Revolution period painting at an auction in China depicting Mao visiting Guangdong province in 1972.

Have you ever sold anything?

No, I keep the collection intact. I'm not a seller, though I've been approached by auction houses.

How much is your 1,400 piece collection worth?

I don't know how much its worth, since I'm not a seller.

But surely you must have some idea for insurance purposes.

Yes, I would have to adapt my insurance values sometimes [to reflect] latest auction prices that are relevant. But honestly I don't know and can't figure it out.

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