For more than 40 years, art collector, diplomat, and entrepreneur Uli Sigg has acquired what is now heralded as one of the most important collections of Chinese art in the world. Sigg’s dedication to contemporary Chinese art has been key in the promotion of many artists across China, mobilizing their ascent to the forefront of the international commercial art market.
Uli Sigg began his career as a business journalist before becoming a distinguished figure in the Schindler Group. In the mid-eighties, after facilitating the first joint venture between the Schindler Group and the Chinese Government, Sigg took on the role of the Swiss ambassador to China, later becoming the Swiss ambassador to North Korea and Mongolia. As the North Korean ambassador, Sigg became the first and only collector to be granted permission to purchase art that showed the regime’s leaders. In one painting titled The Missiles (1994-2004), Pak Yong Chol depicts both Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il positioned in front of the North Korean military arsenal, as rockets and missiles are fired into the air behind them.
When Sigg began acquiring his collection, there was little market demand for contemporary Chinese artists. Eighteen years later in 2012, Sotheby’s valued 1,463 works in his collection at 160 million dollars. Sigg acquired some of the first pieces of his collection in the 1970s, and by the ’90s, was systematically collecting art.
At its height, Sigg’s collection included over 2,200 works of art by a range of Asian artists that included Ai Weiwei, Zhang Xiaogang, Zhang Wei, Kyungah Ham, Yue Minjun, and Makoto Aida. When Sigg began collecting art in the 1970s, he had to approach artists directly given the lack of commercial galleries across the region.
The exploration of socialist realism throughout Asia continues to be a specific point of interest for Sigg. The artworks in his collection reflect both an observation and a commentary on over forty years of Asian politics. Many works even provide direct political commentary, dealing with themes such as tradition, family, and memory within a social and political Chinese context. The treatment of these subjects are exemplified in Zhang Xiaogang’s Bloodline Series – Big Family No.17-1998.
In 2012 Sigg donated 1,463 works by 350 Chinese artists from his collection to the M+ museum of visual culture in Hong Kong. The bequest included art from the Cultural Revolution Period (1966-1976) to pieces as recent as 2012. In 2016, the museum displayed the collection in a show titled Four Decades of Chinese Contemporary Art, exhibiting work from a range of medium that included photography, painting, video, and installation.
Described as "the ambassador of Chinese art", Sigg has been a major player in providing the contemporary Chinese art scene with international exposure. In 1997, Sigg established the Chinese Contemporary Art Awards, a non-profit entity whose purpose was to enhance the position of Chinese contemporary art both domestically and internationally. More recently, M+ announced the establishment of the Sigg Prize, a biennial award recognising outstanding artistic practices in the Greater China region, and open to artists born or working in the region, with the intention to highlight and promote diverse and exciting work on an international scale. This new prize emerged from and replaced the Chinese Contemporary Art Awards (CCAA).
Although Sigg was amongst a small minority who began collecting contemporary Chinese art in the late 20th Century, he was completely unaware of the value his collection would eventually accumulate. While profit margins appear to be of little interest to Sigg, the Swiss collector has admitted that should he want to, he would likely be able to "double his money in four years", but for now, he only buys what he enjoys.
Addressing collectors today, Sigg has advised on the importance of research, specifically into the artist and their previous sales. For those looking to invest, Sigg has noted the increasingly popularity of modern Chinese calligraphy across the market.
Sigg now lives with his wife Rita at Mauensee Castle, their permanent residence located on an island in lake Mauensee, Sursee.
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