Fears for Saatchi's collection after fire guts art warehouse

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The Independent Online

Works by some of Britain's best-known contemporary artists, including Tracey Emin, Sarah Lucas and the Chapman brothers, are feared destroyed after a fire at a warehouse in east London.

Works by some of Britain's best-known contemporary artists, including Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas and the Chapman brothers, are feared destroyed after a fire at a warehouse in east London.

Reports last night suggested that Emin's Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1994 ­ a tent on the inside of which are embroidered 102 names, including those of her family ­ and Hell by Jake and Dinos Chapman may have been lost, along with other works from the collection of Charles Saatchi.

The warehouse belonged to Momart, which looks after the Queen's collection and stores works for Tate Modern, the National Gallery and the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in New York. Its personnel installed Damien Hirst's shark in its tank of formaldehyde, moved the V&A's enormous Raphael cartoons and took the Royal Academy's Sensation! exhibition to Berlin and New York.

A Saatchi spokesman said: "We are waiting for Momart to give us final confirmation. Charles is devastated and is hoping it is not as bad as first indications suggest. Key works have been lost. It's absolutely tragic."

Last night Dinos Chapman said he believed Hell ­ a controversial depiction of the Apocalypse containing 5,000 individually cast and painted figures of skeletons and Nazi soldiers, which took two years to make ­ had been destroyed.

Anna Maris, a director of Momart, said she could not confirm which works had been destroyed. "There's going to be a number of works by artists everybody's heard of, but also artists nobody's heard of. There will have been works that have never been exhibited, some of which have been stored since the 1980s," she said.

The company had three warehouses on the site, an industrial estate in Leyton. It was in the process of transferring work from the destroyed warehouse, which was the size of a football pitch, to a new unit.

"Some works were only moved a couple of weeks ago, so they had a narrow escape," Ms Maris said. "We don't know how the fire started, but we don't believe it started in the warehouse. We are devastated for our clients that have lost work."

Her fellow director Carole Hastings added that the warehouse could have contained more than 100 works ­ between 5 and 10 per cent of the works in Momart's care. "There is a mixture of paintings, big pieces and sculptures," she said.

Five hundred people were evacuated from nearby streets as more than 80 firefighters tackled the blaze, which began shortly before 4am on Monday. Last night some pockets of fire were still being damped down.

The loss of the works will be a devastating blow not only to the artists and Mr Saatchi, but to Britain's contemporary art scene. Hirst, Emin and the Chapmans have been at the forefront of the contemporary art movement for more than a decade. Renowned for their iconoclastic work, originality and disregard for convention and form, their work has attracted hundreds of thousands of people to exhibitions across the globe.

Momart was unable yesterday to put a figure on the value of the lost works, but played down reports that it could run into millions of pounds.

Malcolm Tarling, spokesman for the Association of British Insurers, said works would be insured according to the amount they would be likely to fetch at auction. "A work of art is by definition irreplaceable, because you can't go out and buy another." Many works of art are insured by specialist companies, he said.

Hell formed the centrepiece of a retrospective of the Chapman brothers' work at the Saatchi gallery in London which ended in March. Mr Saatchi reportedly commissioned the sculpture for £500,000 in 1998.

Hell is a series of nine miniature landscapes displayed in glass tanks. Its bloody scenes of disaster and destruction are made up of hundreds of tiny trees and rocks bought from model shops. They create a landscape for 5,000 individually cast and painted figures of skeletons and Nazi soldiers molesting each other. It helped to gain the brothers a Turner prize nomination in 2003.

Hell formed part of the Sensation! exhibition in 1997, along with Emin's Everyone I Have Ever Slept With, which was bought by Saatchi for £40,000. The tent contains the names of 102 people, including her family, friends, twin brother and her two aborted foetuses.

The art critic Brian Sewell said: "Major works by these artists destroyed now is going to affect our perception of the development of art in the late 20th century."

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