Art | Finders Keepers

Asian art

By exploring new markets, Erik Wigertz and his adviser, Arianne Levene, are building a notable collection of contemporary Asian art. Gareth Harris reports.

October 04 2010
Gareth Harris

When an outsize sculpture recommended by an art adviser doesn’t fit through a collector’s front door, you’d expect fireworks. But Russian financial markets supremo Erik Wigertz, a Swedish collector of contemporary art, remained unruffled when Arianne Levene suggested he snap up a voluminous sculpture by Indian superstar artist Subodh Gupta that was just too big for his Stockholm flat. “When I was in a theatre in Moscow, Arianne called me from New York saying that she had a Gupta piece that I just had to buy. Unfortunately, I didn’t really note the size,” recalls Wigertz.

The episode illustrates the special synergy between the two, born out of a five-year partnership focused on purchasing the choicest contemporary art pieces from China, India, Iran and, significantly, Pakistan. “Erik was my first client [for her New Art World company]. He believed in me and we trusted each other. I don’t know if I’d be an art adviser today if I hadn’t met him,” admits Levene who, following an MA at London’s prestigious Courtauld Institute, took up posts at Sotheby’s and UBS. Her next move in 2004 involved managing cultural projects on behalf of Lord Rothschild at London’s Somerset House.

But Levene was keen to seek out new art territories, heading the same year for north-east China, where she was “blown away” by artists such as Yue Minjun and Zeng Fanzhi. She flew to Moscow in 2005 to meet Wigertz, who got in touch through Swedish acquaintances. Having collected Swedish contemporary art since the late 1990s, Wigertz was just as eager to broaden his horizons. Crucially, his attitude towards acquiring art beyond European boundaries chimed with Levene’s sensibilities. “I’ve always worked in frontier markets, which have opened up other worlds,” he observes, drawing on his experience in Russian financial industries.

His art hangs in his Moscow office and flat, as well as his Stockholm residence. He believes: “My Asian art collection makes me unique in the Swedish capital,” and reflects on the impact of Liu Jianhua’s outlandish porcelain bath tub sculpture (Untitled, 2002), the first piece acquired through Levene (£6,000 from London’s Red Mansion Foundation). The pair initially bought emerging Chinese artists priced from $20,000 to $30,000, such as Liu Wei and Zhan Wang.

But they upped the stakes on a 2003 portrait by Zhang Xiaogang, which cost more than $100,000. “Prices for good works rose quite rapidly as I started collecting, but so did my taste for the more expensive, established artists,” notes Wigertz, who also has a striking sculpted dinosaur by Shandong-born Sui Jianguo, Made in China (2002).

So as prices for Chinese art went stratospheric, Levene looked to the subcontinent in 2005. “The top artists were then affordable and I helped Erik buy a very strong piece by Bharti Kher (I’m Going This Way, 2006) from the New Delhi gallery Nature Morte for £24,000,” she says. Other key Indian artists, such as Jitish Kallat and Ravinder Reddy, soon became part of the Wigertz collection. But how did the collector react to the recent slump in the Asian art market?

“I don’t treat art as a stock market. I may not act on market trends but that doesn’t mean I don’t follow them,” he comments.

Always ahead of the game, though, Wigertz and Levene turned to Pakistan. On the subject of Rashid Rana, Pakistan’s leading contemporary artist (with an exhibition at the Musée Guimet in Paris until November 15 organised by A&E Projects, a curatorial practice run by Levene and Eglantine de Ganay), the duo are animated. Red Carpet-1 (2007) resembles a traditional Persian rug but is an assemblage of pixellated images taken in the abattoirs of Lahore. “There is a duality in Rana’s work that appeals to me,” says Wigertz, who has acquired three digital C-prints by Rana through Levene, including Veil 5, 2007, bought for under £50,000 from Chemould Prescott Road gallery in Mumbai. Meanwhile, at Christie’s London in June, a C-print by the artist – Dis-location 3 (Gawal mandi chowk), 2007-8 – made £85,250.

But other talent is coming to light in Pakistan. “The scene in Lahore is extremely interesting. Huma Mulji, Mohammad Ali Talpur, Aisha Khalid, Hamra Abbas and Risham Syed are all names to look out for,” says Levene. The Devi Art Foundation in New Delhi, which earlier this year held a show of Pakistani art curated by Rana, is a good starting place for novices, she adds.

The banter shared over a A Hero’s Work is Never Done (2007), an ink and acrylic creation by Lahore-born artist Faiza Butt, reflects the dynamic of this adviser/buyer relationship. “It’s a very beautiful work depicting images of children innocently playing with guns surrounded by cakes and sweets; a play on Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe,” explains Levene. The work, bought for £10,000, now hangs in Wigertz’s bedroom in Stockholm. “I bought it unseen after consulting Arianne. Now that shows trust,” he laughs.

And what does Levene have next in store? “I’m looking to other unexplored territories in Asia and the Middle East,” she comments (Wigertz already owns work by Indonesian artist Agus Suwage and Baghdad-born Ahmed Alsoudani). “I plan on taking Erik to Indonesia,” she says, with quiet determination.