Royal Academy warned of acting as a dealer for Saatchi

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The Independent Online
On the eve of a major exhibition of works from the celebrated modern art collection of the advertising guru Charles Saatchi, the Royal Academy has been accused of naivety in allowing itself to showcase the paintings of a man who treats art as a business commodity.

The accusation, from David Lee, editor of Art Review, will deal a fresh blow to the RA, which is already reeling from arguments over the deliberately shocking contents of some of the works in the Saatchi exhibition, Sensation, and the charge by Damien Hirst, the artist, that it is a stuffy institution.

Mr Lee said the Royal Academy was playing into Mr Saatchi's hands. "Saatchi is not a collector, he is a dealer and a speculator who understands the importance of hype," he said. "This is an ideal opportunity for him to use the best gallery in London as his own private dealership."

His views were echoed by Norman Adams, the academic art historian, who criticised the RA's devotion to Mr Saatchi's collection. He said: "The art doesn't have any aesthetic value. They are just out to provoke. Saatchi will be laughing all the way to the bank."

Brian Sewell, art critic of the London Evening Standard, said: "The problem with Saatchi is that his position as a patron is muddied to a significant measure by his dealing.

"I have no doubt that he is genuinely enthusiastic about the business of acquisitions but he is also a cynical manipulator of artists and their works. The key question is, what is his ultimate intention?"

Despite his reputation as a supporter of young, struggling artists, Mr Saatchi also treats art as a business. Records at Companies House reveal the existence of a company called Conarco, which has as its principal activity "to deal in works of art and antiques..."

Latest accounts for Conarco, which is entirely owned by Mr Saatchi, disclose assets of pounds 2.8m. However, the true worth of his business is shrouded in mystery since this represents only part of his art-dealing. The accounts show that Conarco the company has a small interest in a partnership also called Conarco. The majority partner in the partnership is Mr Saatchi, but its accounts are not publicly available.

In 1991, the Independent reported that Mr Saatchi had realised more than pounds 10m from selling 70 works at Sotheby's in New York.

Critics of Mr Saatchi point to the way in which he buys paintings and sculptures in bulk, frequently lighting on unknown artists and snapping up every single item of their output. The effect of this, they maintain, is twofold: to anoint the hitherto little-appreciated artist as a star; and to send the value of his or her works sky-high.

He has become by far the most powerful private collector of modern art in Britain, if not the world. Only a small fraction of his collection has been put on public view.

His wealth and power, maintain opponents, has coloured the development of modern art. Too many students, they argue, are trying to produce pieces to please Mr Saatchi, in the hope that he will make them rich and famous. As a result, his taste for outrageous, shocking pieces has come to dominate the genre.

Rachel Whiteread, the sculptor, has complained that students are increasingly motivated by money and making a "career" rather than by love of art.

This week's exhibition reflects Mr Saatchi's passion for the strange and not necessarily the best of British modern art. In the show are Damien Hirst's shark in a tank, Marc Quinn's sculpture of his own head carved out of nine pints of his frozen blood, Jenny Saville's nude woman marked out with lines for the surgeon's knife, and Matt Collishaw's graphic portrayal of a bullet hole in a man's head. Part of the show is barred to the under- 18s and warnings have gone up that visitors may find the works offensive.

Also likely to be included, despite a wave of protests including the resignation from the RA of the sculptor Michael Sandle, is Marcus Harvey's portrait of Moors murderer Myra Hindley made up of child's handprints.

Craigie Aitchison, the leading artist and RA member, accused the academy and Mr Saatchi of using "shock tactics to get people in".

Mr Saatchi's supporters - he himself has given only two interviews in 15 years, adding to his mystique - deny that his arts patronage is driven by financial interest.

"Charles is on record as saying that 90 per cent of his art is going to be worthless to anyone but him in 10 years' time," said a source at the Saatchi Gallery in north London, where part of his 800-item collection is displayed. "When he sells, he does so to finance the gallery and because he wishes to give artists the best possible showcase. It's not a dead collection, it's a living collection."