Two months ago, Uli Sigg, the Swiss art collector and Switzerland’s former Ambassador to China, donated 1463 pieces of his Chinese contemporary art collection to Hong Kong’s M+ museum. The bequest, which included works by 350 artists such as Ai Weiwei and Zhang Xiaogan, initially received widespread praise. Then on June 25,the Art Critic column of the Oriental Morning Post, a Shanghai-based Chinese newspaper, slammed the affair. “The donated works aren’t worth their HK$1.3 billion ($163 million) valuation.” the columnist Zhu Qi declared. “They are mostly junk.”
The column went on to state that The M+ Museum had purchased another 47 Uli Sigg works. “They are not worth their HK$177 million ($22.7 million) pricetag. In fact it’s just a preparation by Sigg to sell off the rest of his Chinese contemporary art collection.”
The article has set off a fierce debate within China’s artistic circle ever since. Sigg came to Beijing last week and accepted, for the first time since the bickering started, to give us an exclusive interview to respond to the questioning.
E.O.: The skeptics believe that the thousand-plus works of your donation have no great academic value. Zhu Qi said that “Among Sigg’s collection there are of course individual works of value, but quite a number of them are just trash.”
Uli Sigg: First, I am really astonished by such a discussion. At the same time, the answer to such a question is very simple. Apart from a few persons at the M+ Museum and myself, nobody else knows what I own and what I have donated to the museum this time, because it’s a huge amount and we haven’t announced the detailed list of the collection. Some works have been included in the ten published catalogues. But the 200 odd works in these published catalogues represent only one-tenth of my collection. Very few of the ten catalogues are actually present in China. I’m just so surprised that there are so many experts about my collection.
The doubters believe that you are giving the poorer quality pieces in your collection to the museum while planning to sell off the rest.
I chose what I consider as important works, in a chronological order, to give to M+ as a gift. I regard my collection as core material and the best part of it was handed over to the M+. In addition, I have set up a “Chinese Contemporary Art Foundation” in Switzerland and donated more than 200 works to it as well. The rest is what I have kept. When two works are similar I give one away and keep the other. Some works were given to me by artists as presents, others are works with personal emotion and memories, those are what I keep. I have no plan to sell any of my Chinese contemporary art works. I had repeated this many times. I have never sold them! Why can’t they believe it?
The skeptics say they have come up with some proof, that you contacted two auction houses in China and are intending to sell off Chen Yanning’s "Chairman Mao Visiting the Rural Areas of Guangdong," (worth more than $12 million)
First of all, many institutions and individuals have written to me and proposed buying the painting. Second, I have always emphasized that I won’t sell my contemporary art collection. Nevertheless, this does not mean I won’t sell any of my collection. Apart from Chinese contemporary art, I also collect art work from other parts of the world as well as the Red Classics series of other periods of Chinese art.
"Chairman Mao Visiting the Rural Areas of Guangdong" is a piece of work from the Cultural Revolution period. It doesn’t belong to contemporary art, but to the Red Classics series. It’s not to be confused and used as a proof that I intend to sell my contemporary art collection.
Up to now I haven’t planned to sell the painting. But I don’t know about the future. In any case I have the freedom to do what I want to do with it.
The reason why I didn’t give this painting to M+ is because I consider the work to be more important to the Chinese mainland. So I kept it.
Some doubters pointed out that M+ is to be opened only in 2017 so there is no hurry for the donation, but is really just a preparation for a sell-off.
This is because the doubter doesn’t understand how to build a museum. It’s only five years between my donation of the works and the museum’s completion. Within the next five years, M+ has to conduct studies about these thousand-plus works, to prepare publications about them. The exhibition halls’ design also has to take into account the collection. Five years are not a lot for doing all this.
It is also reasonable that I start considering the future home of my collection at my age. There are a few big museums being built in Asia right now. It’s a good opportunity. With a collection, the ongoing construction of a museum has a direction to follow.
You have mentioned earlier that your collection covers all the world. Have you met this kind of skepticism only in China?
Yes, only in China. (Laugh) The rest of the world considers this donation of mine to be generous. Everybody thinks that I have done something good for China.
In light of this case, would you ever donate works to a Chinese museum again?
I will probably still do it again (laugh).