Saatchi leads his modern art to market at Smithfield

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The Independent Online
TODAY, ONE of the age's most successful and enigmatic collectors of contemporary art begins to off-load. Charles Saatchi, as influential in the Nineties' world of pickled sheep as he was in the Eighties' world of advertising, is selling 130 works by 97 young artists - more than 5 per cent of his pounds 70m cutting-edge collection, which he bought for around pounds 20m.

Christie's will be mounting the pounds 1m sale - which includes Rachel Whiteread's cast of the space around a kitchen sink and Jake and Dinos Chapman's fibreglass rendition of physicist Stephen Hawking in his wheelchair on a cliff - in a building next to Smithfield meat market. Perhaps the venue is appropriate, as one of Damien Hirst's exhibits comprises four cabinets containing jars of cows' internal organs.

It is also true that when the likes of Hirst and Whiteread are off- loaded, alarm bells ring. Does the Saatchi sale have implications beyond his collection and signal the beginning of the end of the "Sensation" crowd?

The prices paid today will give some clue, but the demise of the Britpack's fame and wealth is unlikely. Graham Southern, director of contemporary art at Christie's, points out that Mr Saatchi is already buying up more works of the artists he is selling, and is mounting the sale to raise money for art schools.

But the fact that a sale of 5 per cent of one collection can give rise to such speculation - and include nearly all the key names in British contemporary art - shows how Mr Saatchi has cornered the market. When the Royal Academy mounted its "Sensation" exhibition last year, every exhibit was from Mr Saatchi's white-walled St John's Wood gallery.

Some detractors saw it as little more than a catalogue of London art school output, circa 1988. Others have questioned why, if he is a patron, he does not set up a "lending library".

According to the traditionalist art critic Brian Sewell, "Utterly frivolous, brash, superficial, ostentatious, the author of incalculable damage, [Saatchi] is the collector for our time. A century hence posterity will marvel, not at his so-called works of art, but that we were so credulous and gullible."

David Barrie, director of the National Art Collections Fund, disagrees: "Saatchi's contribution should be welcomed for stimulating debate." Most of Mr Saatchi's artists, too, are quick to defend him, but the abstract painter Sean Scully, whom he collected in bulk then dropped, has said: "It's incorrect to call it a collection. It is correct to call it stock."

It is a debate the 54-year-old collector rarely graces with an opinion. Only once, when he presented the Turner Prize to his protege Damien Hirst, did he give an intriguing, and typically soundbite, insight into his philosophy. Some of the art he collects appears, he said, to be "tasteless, cynical and uncouth, but I think it's because sometimes we all are".