Greatest Art Collectors Series:
Charles Saatchi

Biography of Contemporary Art Collector, Patron of the Young British Artists.


Charles Saatchi (b.1943)

The Iraqi-born UK businessman and philanthropist Charles Saatchi is the most important post-war art collector in Britain. His devotion to contemporary art, and in particular his patronage of Young British Artists (and their works, known as Britart) during the 1990s, has helped London become the leading centre of postmodernist art in Europe. His collection - which now includes works by many of the top contemporary artists, is on show at the Saatchi Gallery, now established as one of the most popular centres of avant-garde art in London.

Early Days As a Collector

Charles Saatchi, with his brother Maurice, founded Saatchi and Saatchi, which became the world's largest advertising agency. During this time, he began collecting fine art, focusing initially on established artists involved in contemporary art movements like Minimalism and Neo-Expressionism, such as Phillip Guston, Alex Katz, Richard Serra, Anselm Kiefer, Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, Julian Schnabel and Andy Warhol.

Solomon R Guggenheim (1861-1949)
US art collector, museum-founder.
Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney (1875-1942)
Founder of Whitney Museum, NY.
Peggy Guggenheim (1898-1979)
Collected modern abstract art.
Leo Castelli (1907-99)
Leading New York art dealer.

For a short guide to conceptualism,
see: Conceptual Art.
For details of installations,
see: Installation Art.
For new forms of lens-based works,
see: Fine Art Photography.
For new approaches to sculpture,
see: Assemblage Art and Collage.

For a guide to the different,
categories/meanings of visual
arts, see: Definition of Art.

Artists He Helped Made Famous

Virgin Mother (2005). Damien Hirst.
Plaza of Lever House, NYC.
Hirst was the most famous of the
Young British Artists sponsored
by Charles Saatchi, one of the top
art collectors of contemporary
works in Britain.

In addition, Saatchi joined the steering committee of the Patrons of New Art - a group set up in 1982 under the auspices of the Friends of the Tate Gallery to fund the purchase of new works of art and to stimulate interest in contemporary British art. In 1984, the Patrons of New Art established the Turner Prize - now the major annual prize devoted to British achievement in the visual arts. In 1985, Saatchi opened his art collection to the public at his gallery in St John's Wood, North London, although only a small part of his holdings was on view at any one time.

In any event, by the late 1980s Saatchi had - through his gallery, his charitable activities, and the huge scale of his art investments - established himself as one of the key patrons of contemporary art in Britain.


By sheer coincidence, the late 1980s also saw the birth and rise of a set of young, highly innovative art students, mostly from Goldsmiths' College in London, who would revitalize and dominate painting, sculpture and other contemporary artforms during the 1990s. And Charles Saatchi would become their most important patron and collector.

It all began in 1988, with an exhibition entitled Freeze, organized by Damien Hirst - a 2nd-year Goldsmiths' student - in a large disused building in the London Docklands area. It consisted of work by himself and 16 other Goldsmiths' College students. Saatchi went along and bought most of the exhibits. He did the same at several other Docklands shows, including Modern Medicine and the East Country Yard Show. He became Britart's biggest fan, and effectively the brains behind its rise.

Young British Artists: The Key Brand Name

Brit featured a very diverse mixture of painting, sculpture, assemblage installation art, video film and conceptual works. Saatchi's unique contribution was to brand it and make it sellable. He did this by inventing a new name for its creators: Young British Artists (YBAs). During the period 1992-96 he held six exhibitions (entitled: Young British Artists I-VI) at the Saatchi Gallery which established the new label and generated massive media coverage at home and abroad. In 1995, a major YBA exhibition, entitled Brilliant!, travelled to the highly respected Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.


Sensation Exhibition

In 1997, Saatchi co-curated the hugely popular Sensation exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, showcasing works by 42 YBAs from his private collection. Sensation generated enormous publicity for its exhibitors including Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Marcus Harvey, Rachel Whiteread, Jake and Dinos Chapman, Chris Ofili, Ron Mueck, Jenny Saville, Sarah Lucas, and others. Sensation attracted over 300,000 visitors, a British record for a contemporary exhibition. In 1999, Sensation travelled to The National Galerie at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin, where it broke all attendance records. It also travelled to the Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York, where some of its works caused a major scandal, breaking yet more attendance records in the process.

Given the challenging postmodernist nature of many of these works, Saatchi's patronage was a vital factor in bringing them to public notice, although the sheer scale of his intervention has caused unease. Some critics point to possible conflicts of interest between his roles as curator, dealer and charitable patron. Others are unhappy that he has resold much of his collection at a profit, accusing him of rigging the market. (In 1991 he allegedly 'dumped' on the market a significant number of contemporary American works, and in 2004 a large number of YBA works, including Damien Hirst's The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991). The shark installation was reportedly sold to the hedge-fund tycoon Steve Cohen for $8.3m.) Notwithstanding these concerns, one thing is for sure: without his huge investments, a number of young British artists and Turner Prize Winners would be much poorer and a lot less famous than they are today.

Saatchi Gallery

In addition to his support for Britart, Saatchi has spent a great deal of money and attention on his gallery. In 2003, he moved it to new premises at County Hall, the old headquarters building of the Greater London Council. In 2004, his Momart supply warehouse caught fire with the loss of hundreds of important works of art. Then, in 2008, he moved the gallery to its present location on the King's Road in Chelsea. It is now reckoned to be Britain's foremost museum of contemporary art, and has been a major influence on the development of late 20th and early 21st century hypermodern artworks. Its art shows have featured Minimalism, Young British Artists, as well as the best of Chinese contemporary painting. Artists shown include: Brice Marden, Cy Twombly, Andy Warhol, Sol Lewitt, Frank Stella, Anselm Kiefer, Richard Serra, Jeff Koons, Philip Guston, Bruce Nauman, Frank Auerbach, Lucian Freud, Cindy Sherman, Damien Hirst, Rachel Whiteread and many others. In 2006, Saatchi's exhibition of contemporary US art, entitled USA Today: New American Art, opened at the Royal Academy and travelled to the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, in 2007.

Evidence of the Saatchi Gallery's popularity surfaced recently in The Art Newspaper’s 15th annual survey of attendance figures, which confirmed that its visitors now total 1.2 million per annum. Indeed its recent "The Revolution Continues: New Art from China" and "Unveiled: New Art from the Middle East" exhibitions attracted 4,139 and 3,828 people a day respectively. This made them the first and third most visited shows in the UK.


Saatchi has made a number of very significant donations of top contemporary artworks to numerous institutions, such as the Arts Council of Great Britain Collection (which lends works to museums and galleries around the country), the National Arts Collection Fund, and the Paintings in Hospitals program. In 2010, he announced that the Saatchi Gallery would be given to the state, becoming the Museum of Contemporary Art for London.

What Charles Saatchi Thinks About Art

(1) The art collector he admires most is Count Panza di Biumo; (2) Of all visual artists active c.1940-2009, only Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Donald Judd and Damien Hirst will be seen as important; (3) Of all the promising artists who died young, the one with the most potential was Scott Burton; (4) He prefers Monet to Modigliani; (5) His favourite art museum is the Prado, Madrid; (6) His house is usually full of Paula Rego pictures; (7) He disagrees with Blake Gopnik, the Washington Post art critic, who said "painting has been dead for 40 years"; (8) The point of visual art is to counterbalance all the bad TV and films we watch; (9) Jackson Pollock's best painting is One (Number 31), 1950, MoMA, New York; See: Jackson Pollock's paintings (c.1940-56). (10) It would be better for Britain to support living artists than raise millions to save Old Master paintings from going abroad; (11) In general, buy art for pleasure, not as an investment; (12) Few video artists have improved on works by the great pioneers of video art, namely: Bruce Nauman, Andy Warhol, Vito Acconci, Joan Jonas etc; (13) Blue Electric Chair is Any Warhol's best painting; (14) His favourite non-blockbuster art show was Clyfford Still's retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, NY, (Nov 1979 - Feb 1980); (15) The fact that only 5 of the last 40 Turner Prize nominees have been painters, says more about curators than about the state of painting today. [Source: My Name is Charles Saatchi and I am an Artoholic (2009) Phaidon Press Ltd.]

For more about the people involved in the development of painting and sculpture, see: History of Art.


• For more about fine arts buyers and their collections, see: Homepage.

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