Meet Mr Kim, the Britart benefactor who has Damien Hirst and Saatchi in his sights

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The Independent Online

As Damien Hirst's first solo exhibition for eight years opens this week in London, the artist's major new benefactor, poised to replace Charles Saatchi as Britart's bankroller-in-chief, can be revealed as a mysterious South Korean millionaire-cum-artist.

Kim Chang-il, a collector, entrepreneur and self-proclaimed aesthete, is the mastermind of an assault on London's claim to be the natural home of great British modern art.

Mr Kim, The Independent on Sunday can reveal, has bought Charity, the massive centrepiece of the new Hirst show, opening this Wednesday. He intends Charity - a 22ft-high, six-ton bronze based on the 1960s Spastics Society collection box girl - to be the crowning glory of his extensive collection of modern art, much of it British.

Mr Kim's investment means that the epicentre of the highly lucrative Britart revolution could well shift 5,500 miles from the heart of London to Cheonan, the anonymous shopping-and-sleeping suburb of Seoul, South Korea, where he keeps his art. Here, from next month, you will find one of the world's greatest private collections of Britart from the past 10 years, housed in a new gallery space specially created for dozens of works - including pieces by two enfants terribles, Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin. Farewell Saatchi's Cool Britannia, hello Kim's Cool Korea.

On the face of it, Mr Kim is an unlikely successor to Charles Saatchi. Aged 53, Mr Kim made his fortune in retail and transport, and owns a chain of 14 restaurants, as well as a department store and entertainment complex.

The store, called Arario, has an art gallery housing hundreds of modern artworks culled from around the world, but for the past 15 years Mr Kim has been focusing on buying work created in Britain. As well as pieces by Hirst, he owns five works by Emin, and others by Jake and Dinos Chapman, Mona Hatoum, Marc Quinn, Gilbert & George and Antony Gormley.

Two years ago Mr Kim paid £1.3m for Hirst's Hymn, a 20ft-high sculpture in the style of a medical student's model of the human body, and installed it in the entrance to his department store. Around the same time, another version of Hymn was bought by Charles Saatchi for about £1m.

Though Mr Kim has long been known to art dealers, his sudden arrival as a key player on the international gallery circuit comes as the rift between Hirst and Mr Saatchi appears to be widening. Interviewed on Radio 4's Front Row last week, Hirst said he had no interest in Mr Saatchi's showpiece new modern art gallery on the South Bank, London, which has staged a retrospective of Hirst's work. "I think museums are for dead artists," he said. "I've seen all that work before in Charles's place. I don't think I'd like it really." Earlier this year, Hirst was conspicuously absent from the Saatchi Gallery's opening night party, calling the gallery "pointless" and "a waste of time".

If anything, Mr Kim's vision of how to offer modern British art to the public is even more acute and astute than Mr Saatchi's. "My dream is to provide the customer with what he or she wants," he says in the latest edition of the Art Newspaper, "but constantly to raise the consumer's expectation, to encourage them to dream... As a businessman I want the customer to see my art and the art of others and be rewarded with pleasure."

"Mr Kim is very happy with Charity," a spokeswoman for the Arario Gallery told The Independent on Sunday last week. "It complements Hymn. We are interested in modern art that is cutting edge, and British art is certainly that."

Charity is to be the centrepiece of Romance in the Age of Uncertainty, a major exhibition of Hirst's recent work that opens this week at the White Cube in Hoxton, east London. Mr Kim's office declined to reveal how much he has paid for Charity, but a figure in excess of the £1.3m paid for Hymn is likely. Art market sources told the IoS that all works at the Hirst exhibition have already been sold - but to whom?

The White Cube would not reveal any names, but the tally of recent investors in the Hirst oeuvre throws up a strange group of possibilities. Sir Elton John is known to own works by Hirst, and, this summer, David Beckham bought one of his prized "butterfly" works as a fourth wedding anniversary present for his wife, Victoria. And it might be unwise to rule out a Saatchi interest. Married last week to the TV cook Nigella Lawson, he might already have the perfect wedding present on order.