Sotheby's auction house called it the "most important
collection of contemporary Chinese art to ever come to market" — some
200 works by some of China's hottest names.
And when the first half of the trove, called the
Estella Collection, went on the block in April in Hong Kong, it brought
in $18 million and set some record prices for artists, like $6 million
for a canvas by the Chinese painter Zhang Xiaogang.
But the sale of the works has stirred indignation among many of the artists and their dealers and some curators.
Those artists and curators say that as the collection was being formed,
they were duped into thinking that a rich Westerner was putting together
a permanent collection and would eventually donate some of the works to
Instead, they say, the buyers were a group of investors who quickly
cashed in by selling the works last August to the Manhattan dealer
William Acquavella, who is in turn selling them through Sotheby's. (The
second half of the collection is to be auctioned this fall in New York.)
Some of the artists say they sold works in the Estella Collection at a
discount in the belief that the collection would gain long-term renown
and help enhance their reputations.
"I feel cheated," said one of the artists, Feng Zhengjie, 40, known for
his gaudy portraits of fashionable, lushly made-up women. "I can't
believe it ended up like that, just for an auction."
Michael Goedhuis, the New York dealer who formed the collection for the
group of investors, said he never misled anyone and had expected his
investors to hold onto the works.
"The story was the same to everyone: this is a collection we intend on
keeping intact," said Mr. Goedhuis, who traveled to China for more than
three years to collect the pieces. "There was a change of direction for
various reasons. It was a big surprise and it was out of my control."
Mr. Goedhuis declined to identify his investors, but The New York Times
has already named two: Ray Debbane, president of the New York investment
firm Invus Financial Advisors, and Sacha Lainovic, a co-founder and
managing partner at Invus. Neither Mr. Debbane nor Mr. Lainovic returned
telephone calls seeking comment.
Mr. Goedhuis said that in any case the artists had no reason to complain
because they had benefited from the exposure. "They're riding the
wave," he said.
In a statement issued last week, Sotheby's acknowledged that in the
final weeks before the sale it "became aware that a few artists had sold
their works with a different expectation about what would happen to
them in the future." It said it hoped "the international exposure during
this exciting time in the market would be helpful in furthering their
Aggravating the controversy, the auction was announced just after the
works had been exhibited at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in
Humlebaek, Denmark, from March to August of last year. Had they known
the Estella Collection would quickly be sold, officials at the Danish
museum said, they would never have organized the exhibition.
"We seriously regret that it turned out to be mere speculation, and
there was dishonesty," said Anders Kold, the curator of the show, titled
"Made in China." "We didn't have that information, and so as a
consequence, we went on with it."
To retain the public trust and ensure that they are not used as
marketing tools, museums generally try to avoid exhibiting private
collections that are soon to be sold.
The show also traveled to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, closing there
shortly before the April auction in Hong Kong. "At the time that the
museum made arrangements for the exhibition, there was no indication of
any intention to sell the collection,'' the Israel Museum said this week
in an e-mail. "The museum learned of this development only toward the
end of the showing.''
The conflict suggests the tensions that have arisen between artists,
curators, galleries and museums around the world since the booming art
market became global. The challenges are particularly acute when it
comes to China, which has become a magnet for some of the world's
biggest galleries, museums, collectors and art market speculators, but
is relatively new to the game.
Chinese artists who a few years ago were selling works for just $10,000
each are suddenly signing deals with international galleries and seeing
their works fetch $500,000 or more at auction. Indeed, Art Market Trends
2007 reported that last year, 5 of the 10 best-selling living artists
at auction were born in China, led by Mr. Zhang, 50, whose works sold
for a total of $56.8 million at auction last year.
"It's amazing," said Fabien Fryns, a founder of F2 Gallery in Beijing.
"I think there'll be a $20 million painting some time soon."
Mr. Goedhuis, a former antiques dealer, said that last August's sale to
Mr. Acquavella was hugely profitable for his investors. But he declined
to say what they paid for the works or what they sold them for. Art
market experts have put the Acquavella acquisition at around $25
Sotheby's is a stakeholder in the Estella Collection auction. That the
first half of the collection has sold for far above the estimate
suggests that Mr. Acquavella and the auction house have invested wisely.
Mr. Goedhuis said his investors' "original concept" was to "build the
pre-eminent collection of Chinese contemporary art as the basis of a
One indication of the seriousness of the project, he said, was a
decision to hire Britta Erickson, an independent scholar and a leading
authority on Chinese contemporary art, to help select works and write
essays for the book, "China Onward," which was published by the
Louisiana Museum in Denmark.
But Ms. Erickson now says that she too was misled into thinking she was working for a serious, long-term collector.
"I believed that it was to be a personal collection being assembled for
the long term, with perhaps some pieces to be donated to museums," she
said in an e-mail message. "I am sorry I was misinformed."
She added, "The art world cannot function without trust."
The artist He Sen, 40, who paints photographlike images of young women,
also said that Mr. Goedhuis had assured him that a long-term collector
was behind the Estella Collection and that some of the works might end
up in a museum.
He said that one painting that he sold to the collection for about $60,000 went for more than $200,000 at the Hong Kong auction.
"Many artists, including me, were convinced by him, gave our best works
to Michael, some even at a relatively cheap price," Mr. He said of Mr.
Goedhuis. "Then it turned out to be an auction. We feel sold out by
Mr. Feng said his works were auctioned at Sotheby's for 5 to 10 times the price he gave Mr. Goedhuis.
Mr. Goedhuis said that in turning to Mr. Acquavella, he had hoped that
the Las Vegas casino tycoon Steve Wynn, a major collector with interests
in Macao, one of China's special administrative regions, would emerge
as a buyer of the entire collection. In the end Mr. Acquavella bought it
himself, without restrictions. Then he put it up for auction.
"That's what I do," Mr. Acquavella said. "I buy and sell."
Mr. Goedhuis said he had since tried to convince the artists that the Estella Collection's brief history was a boon to them.
" 'You only benefited from this,' " he said he told some of the artists
after the auction was announced last fall, and he began fielding
complaints. " 'You're in a wonderful scholarly book and you've been
exhibited in two fine museums.' "
He also offered his own scathing critique of the artists, remarking that
they had profited so much from the boom that they could afford to build
huge studios and homes.
"The problem is everyone is buying and flipping, and the artists are
also flipping," he said by telephone from Beijing. "It's a Wild West out
By David Barboza
For The New York Times