Charles Saatchi 'abuses his hold on British art market'

Gallery owner and ex-husband of new BritArt star reports the UK's most influential art collector to the Office of Fair Trading
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The Independent Online

Charles Saatchi, by far the most influential figure on the contemporary British art scene, has been reported to the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) for allegedly monopolising the art market.

Charles Saatchi, by far the most influential figure on the contemporary British art scene, has been reported to the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) for allegedly monopolising the art market.

Charles Thomson, a gallery owner who has made it his mission to burst the BritArt bubble, has now taken the extraordinary step of submitting a formal complaint to the OFT. He claims that Mr Saatchi's pre-eminent commercial position as the key patron of dozens of young artists is monopolistic and anti-competitive.

Mr Thomson's attack comes in the form of a five-page letter, delivered to the OFT late last week, in which he alleges that Mr Saatchi, the man who "made" conceptual artists such as Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and Jake and Dinos Chapman, "abuses" his position "to the commercial detriment of smaller competitors".

Mr Thomson is co-founder of the Stuckist movement, established as an alternative to conceptual art. It got its name after Emin branded the artists as "stuck" in the past.

The row has been made more bitter by the emergence of Stella Vine, Mr Thomson's ex-wife, as a major new addition to Mr Saatchi's collection. A former stripper, Ms Vine is now widely talked of as one of Mr Saatchi's great new discoveries. She came to public attention when two of her paintings - one, Hi Paul Can You Come Over?, of Princess Diana, and one of the drugs victim Rachel Whitear - were bought by Mr Saatchi for display in his New Blood exhibition.

But, says Mr Thomson, Stella Vine's talent was honed and nurtured not by Mr Saatchi but by him and by fellow Stuckists. He says they have again been squeezed out of a new art spotlight habitually trained on Mr Saatchi.

The attention devoted to Mr Saatchi and his "discoveries", Mr Thomson argues, is to the detriment of broader artistic and cultural life in Britain - but also, he says, makes it almost impossible to set up in business as a rival to him.

Mr Thomson told The Independent on Sunday yesterday that he believes some private galleries will only sell to "approved" clients, with an understanding that new artworks are not placed on the open market.

Despite their love of non-hyped art, the Stuckist artists have themselves attracted some less than flattering reviews. "These vociferous opportunists," said Sarah Kent, art critic of Time Out magazine, "are a bunch of Bayswater Road-style daubers."

"This is not a philosophical issue," Mr Thomson said last night. "As a small competitor in a market where there is a dominant competitor acting because of their dominant position, my ability to compete commercially is undermined.

"As soon as Stella got in the media promoted by Saatchi I realised that we [the Stuckists] were being airbrushed out of the picture. How can I get my view across when I don't have a massive marketing firm to issue stuff that gets printed worldwide simultaneously?"

An OFT spokesperson said: "If we think that we have reasonable grounds to suspect there has been a breach of the Competition Act, then we will launch an investigation."

A spokesman for the Saatchi Gallery said they would not be able to comment until they knew the details of Mr Thomson's allegations.

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