Dr. Uli Sigg — A Typology of Collecting

The real Uli Sigg hangs out with an Ai Weiwei rendition of Uli Sigg. Photo by Bild: PD. From the Neue Zurcher Beitung, a German-language Swiss newspaper. Artwork : Ai Wei Wei, Uli Sigg (Newspaper Reader). 2004. Mixed Media, 108 x 58 x 72 cm. Courtesy of the artist and the collector
SHAO Fan, Moon Rabbit. 2010. Oil on canvas, Ø 220 cm
Yangjiang Group, Calligraphy Garden, 2004. Installation, Mixed Media, dimension: variable. All images: Courtesy M+ Sigg Collection
CoBo Social Market News


In the many conversations I have held in lounges and auction houses with the rapidly growing community of Asian contemporary art collectors, one question cropped up again and again: How does one collect wisely in the face of the inexhaustible and exhausting profusion on the worldwide art market? The softer the science – for this is indeed a science – the more important it is to rely upon the advice of an expert: “A true collector is an artist in four walls. He chooses pictures and hangs them, and in this manner he paints his own collection.”These were the words of Marcel Duchamp, but was he right?


TEXT : Dr. Uli Sigg
PHOTO :  Bild: PD (Neue Zurcher Beitung)


In contrast to the works in which Duchamp is usually cited, this article does not aim to analyse or expand upon the meanings of terms like “art” or “artist”. I also do not plan to debate upon whether or not the act of collecting has phylogenetic roots, whether its origins lie in human instinct, base greed, inner emptiness, the desire to refine and cultivate one’s self, the brain stem or simply in the output of endorphins.  These topics are best left in the domain of anthropologists, psychoanalysts, neuroscientists and art historians. With the term “collecting” I here refer merely to the amassing of artworks within a logical framework which lends the items a meaning beyond the inherent value of the pieces themselves.  The following is designed as an – admittedly highly simplified – typology of collecting, based upon observation of numerous public, private, jumbled and ordered collections in varying states of opulence and decay, open to the public or reserved for a chosen few.

The “I Like Art” Style of Collecting

This is the most widespread style of collecting and comprises the simple amassment of works, generally brought together purely by the fondness – or dare I say taste? – of the buyer, or at least by his fondness and tastes at the time of purchase. It is a fully legitimate manner of collecting. What collector didn’t start out this way? With a bare wall and a handful of cash, ideally enough to afford the things they liked. The categories for these purchases lay within the boundaries of their own taste, and not within any coherent concept. Most buyers remain in this state, many of which with highly comprehensive amassments.

The “Investment” Style of Collecting

This style is self-explanatory and not at all intended as a judgement of worth, as all forms of collecting are equally legitimate.  The goal of this manner of collecting is to generate return on investment, and this demands good knowledge of the market. Thus, collectors nowadays often turn to consultants, which can lead to collections being built by ear rather than by eye.  The most common method is to follow trends, but this style is also based on the sophisticated patterns of behaviour established by the finance industry. High risk “ventures” with young artists, “early stage” with emerging artists, “ripe” artists with established markets and respected “masterpieces” known to have enduring value – any number of these categories can be combined to create a well-rounded investment portfolio.

The “Status Symbol” Style of Collecting

This is a style of collecting which has become a worldwide trend.  The aim of this style is to collect “must have” pieces by the hundred or so seemingly omnipresent artists who make up the global mainstream.  These are the names which grace auction catalogues, whose works fill the halls of the largest galleries, art fairs and modern museums – and now, inevitably, also the corridors of the finest villas, offices and private museums from Jakarta to New York.

Whilst this form of “status symbol” collecting requires little personal research or creativity,  financial means are here of central importance.  This leads to the ubiquitous phenomena that all of these collections, wherever they may be, begin to look alike. In such spaces, one often hears discussions as to whether the piece in question is a more colourful Richter or a more rebellious Basquiat.  By mentioning these two names I by no means wish to insult their artistic prowess:  They cannot help their popularity, but it is this popular appeal that creates ever more uniform and monotonous collections.

One variation of status collecting is the sole purchase of masterpieces – works which usually receive this epithet through auction catalogues in which articles ranging from the educated to the audacious draw parallels between the works on offer and the great icons of art history.

Anyone with deep enough pockets and professional advisers can make a move in this market and purchase a tangible symbol of their prestige, an enduringly popular pastime in both emerging and developed countries.  This kind of collecting is tailored to appear exclusive, creating a distinction between the more philistine members of high society, and even more so from the denizens of the lower classes.

The “Focused” Style of Collecting

What is a focussed style of collecting? What is a focus? It is a central idea, concept or logic through which disparate items are combined to create new levels of meaning.  This form of ordered combination lends items new significance and stands in marked contrast to the mere random amassing of objects.  Choosing a focus is the central question for any collector, and makes the difference between a true collection and an accumulation. Whether one collects squares, pictures of dinosaurs, Renaissance sketches, cartoons or items in a specific style is largely irrelevant.

This focus is a difficult choice for any collector to make, as it implies discipline in the face of a multitude of temptations. However, it is this focus which lends character to a collection, and when it is followed, is the quality which one would identify as “soul”.

The “Networked” Style of Collecting

If we view collecting as an iterative process or even wish to create a hierarchy of collecting styles, the most complex would definitely be that in which the individual components of a collection connected to form a close-knit network of meaning. After a focus has been chosen, the aim of this style of collecting is to choose pieces mirroring and elaborating on a central idea.  The works should complement each other in such a way as to create connotations which would not have existed in any other context.  This style of collecting in no way requires one to line up countless “masterpieces” like pearls on a string, ascriptions of this kind come and go in the world of contemporary art, and there is nothing more outdated than a 15 year old auction catalogue… In this style of collecting it is more important to seek out those works which have remained unnoticed, perhaps because they originate from artists which the mainstream has labelled as second class. It is often these pieces which have the capacity to  fill the gaps in our perception and reveal the otherwise concealed subtext.

Attempting to do a collector justice when describing his work is often a difficult process: Many things are forgotten in reconstruction, and where there is documentation it is often of a subjective nature or at least exhibits gaps. One would have to know the details, the whens, wheres and hows of their collecting process: What were their financial means? What research did they carry out? What research did they omit? Which works were available at the time? Which works were passed up and why? Which works were out of reach? Which purchases were mistakes?  The list goes on …

A collection is nothing if not the materialisation of a process. It is a distillation of a collector’s vision, intuition and passion, their research, chances seized, possibilities, hard work and its absence – all very similar to the work of artists themselves, and thus it seems Duchamp was right.

About Dr. Uli Sigg

SHAO Fan „Moon Rabbit“. 2010. Oil on canvas, Ø 220 cm
SHAO Fan, Moon Rabbit. 2010. Oil on canvas, Ø 220 cm


Dr. Uli Sigg is a Swiss media executive, art patron, China expert, founder of the first joint venture between China and the outside world and created the most substantial collection of Chinese Contemporary Art world- wide. He was ambassador to China, North Korea and Mongolia in the mid-1990s. He is currently a board member of several international companies and a member of the advisory board of China Development Bank.

Uli Sigg is well-known as an art collector to a wide circle of people. He began to collect Chinese contemporary art in the 1990s. As a result, he accumulated the world’s largest and most significant collection in this field within a few decades. Sigg personally knows many of the artists, whose works form part of the collection.  In 2012, he donated 1,500 Chinese contemporary artworks to M+, Hong Kong’s future museum for visual arts. He is a member of the International Council of MoMA, New York and of the International Advisory Council of Tate Gallery, London.

Yangjiang Group „Calligraphy Garden“. 2004. Installation, Mixed Media, dimension: variable. All images: Courtesy M+ Sigg Collection
Yangjiang Group, Calligraphy Garden, 2004. Installation, Mixed Media, dimension: variable. All images: Courtesy M+ Sigg Collection

This article is published with the consent of the author at the occasion of the exhibition :

M+ Sigg Collection Exhibition
Curator : Dr. Pi Li
23 February – 5 April, 2016
ArtisTree, Hong Kong

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