A pair of good eyes

How the Ullens have made a fortune from collecting Chinese art

A pair of good eyes

Canny with a canvas: Guy Ullens and wife Myriam with photo collection by Chinese artist Geng Jianyi

Warren Buffett may be the sage of stock picking. But when it comes to art investing, few people have the foresight of Baron Guy Ullens.

Ullens, 75, whose father was a diplomat in China, grew up with a love of Chinese culture. During the mid-1980s, he started to travel frequently to the country to run the family’s sugar business. During those business trips he began his art collection with classical Chinese scrolls. Soon, his interest expanded to contemporary Chinese art, from artists like Zhang Xiaogang, Zeng Fanzhi and Wang Guangyi. He started buying about two decades before everyone else.

As it turns out, Ullens’ approach to art collecting is not much different from Buffett’s philosophy of investing: buy carefully and hold. Whether buying contemporary paintings or antique scrolls, he hangs on to them for years, selling only reluctantly.

As a result, many of the Ullens’ collections are the “rarest of rare,” says Michael Wang, chief executive officer of Taipei-based My Humble House Art Space.

That strategy seems to have paid off. Take the Rare Birds Painted from Life, a 5.25-metre ink scroll painted by the Northern Song Dynasty’s Huizong Emperor (1082-1135). The scroll, which was put up for auction last year, carried an ambitious reserve, Rmb38 million. Some said it would be hard to sell at that price. Ullens ended up selling it for Rmb61.7 million ($9.26 million), almost triple the amount he paid for the scroll in 2002.

Similarly, at this year’s Spring auction, he put up Watching the Tide by Zhou Chen (1450-1535). It fetched Rmb38 million, compared with its estimate of Rmb5-8 million. It was the highest price ever paid for a work by the artist.

“This is an endorsement by buyers of the quality of the Ullens Collection,” Dimitri de Failly, Ullens’ chief representative in China told Bloomberg. “The result is another sign that the Chinese auction market is not out of oxygen. Chinese collectors are still present and very passionate about their acquisitions.”

The buy-and-hold formula has also worked when it comes to contemporary paintings, not least because Ullens and his wife Myriam were investing long before most of the more famous artists had become household names. Ullens says, a little tongue-in-cheek, that he couldn’t afford some of the most sought-after pieces coming onto the market today.

He has, however, cashed in. Last year, he sold Zhang Xiaogang’s 2001 Bloodline Series for Rmb15 million and Liu Xiaodong’s 1990 Showered in Sunlight for Rmb6.1 million. Although Ullens did not reveal how much he paid for the paintings, many speculate it could have been as little as Rmb40,000 each.

Finance and Investment Daily reported that between last year and the first half of this year, the Belgian couple has offloaded Rmb605 million worth of their collection. Industry insiders saw the sales as one of the most important events in the artworld as the couple were known as quality investors and had rarely sold any of their collection.

So why are they selling now? It is actually not the first time the Ullens have done so. In 2007, the couple sold a collection of English masterworks (Turner watercolours) – the biggest assortment to come onto the market in more than a century – for $21 million at Sotheby’s. Using the money they made from the sale, they opened the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art in Beijing’s 798 Arts District, housing their collection in a Bauhaus-style former munitions factory.

Ullens said the proceeds from the more recent auctions will go towards financing the operations of his namesake Beijing museum to promote art in China, as well as fund future acquisitions.

“You can obviously promote art by owning a collection, but more dynamically so by supporting an institution such as the UCCA,” says de Failly, Ullens’ China representative.

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