Contemporary Chinese ink on paper

The Chinese artists creating dynamic works in the traditional medium of ink intrigue both a specialist dealer and a keen collector, says Claire Wrathall.

Saeb Eigner (seated) and Michael Goedhuis with Spring Dream, 2008, by Qiu Jie.
Saeb Eigner (seated) and Michael Goedhuis with Spring Dream, 2008, by Qiu Jie. | Image: Dan Burn-Forti

On a trip to Beijing in 2004, Saeb Eigner, founder of the investment company Lonworld Group and chairman of the Dubai Financial Services Authority, visited the studio of artist Zeng Fanzhi. “I wanted to see how he drew,” says Eigner, “how technically proficient he was. So I handed him a piece of paper, and he drew me – wonderfully. He is a great artist by any standard.”

So delighted was Eigner that he began to ask other artists to sketch him – Zhang Xiaogang, Wang Guangyi, Yang Xiaobin: “We were all having dinner, and I think that once they knew the others had done so, they wanted to as well, to prove a point.” The framed results now hang in the kitchen of his London home.

“It was a real coup,” says Michael Goedhuis, a London dealer in Chinese art who advises Eigner. “Those artists’ works now fetch multimillion-dollar prices.” In 2008, for instance, an oil by Zeng Fanzhi sold for HK$75.4m (about £6.1m) at Christie’s Hong Kong, while last April a triptych by Zhang Xiaogang sold for HK$79.06m (about £6.4m) at Sotheby’s.

According to 2011’s annual ranking of art-market prices, however, the highest sums for Chinese art are commanded by works in ink on paper, notably by 20th-century figures such as Zhang Daqian, a painting by whom sold for $21.85m in May 2011, and Qi Baishi, whose Eagle Standing on Pine Tree realised $57.2m in the same month, setting the record for a Chinese painting sold at auction. Indeed, a painting by Zhang that Goedhuis bought on behalf of investors for $100,000 in 2004 sold three years on for $2m, and recently sold again for $6m.

As a consequence, Eigner’s interest focuses on works by living Chinese ink painters, whom the Stanford University art historian Britta Erickson has described as “the most idealistic and intellectually daring of China’s artists”; names such as Qiu Deshu, Gao Xingjian, Gu Wenda, Lu Hao, Qiu Jie and Zhang Huan, whose works can still be bought for five-figure sums. “In terms of innovation,” says Goedhuis, “they are creating a new language out of the past. But there are very few of them; only 50 artists of international stature. And they are yet to be fully recognised, so you can buy their work for a fraction of what their predecessors are selling for.”

Fissuring No. 7, 2001, by Qiu Deshu.
Fissuring No. 7, 2001, by Qiu Deshu. | Image: Collection of Saeb Eigner

Eigner first “stumbled upon the Chinese art scene” on a trip to Beijing and Shanghai in 1994 as an MBA student at the London Business School, where he is now a governor; it is also where a number of Chinese paintings he no longer has room for at home are hung.

The next year, Goedhuis, who has been visiting China since 1980, opened his dealership, which he runs from an elegant apartment in Chelsea. And, in time, Eigner contacted him: “Michael probably thought I was a waste of time,” he says. “But I persevered and bought a piece, and then another, and another.”

“And I thought, ‘This is going to save my bacon’,” Goedhuis chips in.

“Today, at least in my orbit, a passion for art is no longer the priority for many collectors,” says Goedhuis. “Art comes into it, but so does status and investment potential.” Eigner, however, struck him as different. “Saeb really looks at works in depth. Most people don’t; they’re very quick to make decisions, which is very attractive to a dealer if they buy. Saeb, however, takes his time, goes away and thinks before making up his mind. Sometimes he buys, sometimes he doesn’t, because, quite rightly, he imposes his own aesthetic on his collection. It can be a thrilling dialogue.”

Eigner concedes that Goedhuis has been very influential on his collecting: “Michael opened my eyes to works on paper. He has a very good eye, and I trust his judgement. The Chinese market is much more difficult, and very different, from what it was. You need to listen and absorb as much knowledge as you can.”

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Even beyond a passion for and expertise in Chinese art, the two have much in common. Londoners by adoption, both were born abroad – Goedhuis in the Netherlands, Eigner in Austria – but educated in England. And both began their careers as investment bankers; Eigner at ANZ Grindlays, Goedhuis at First Boston Corporation.

More than that, the two also share an interest in Middle Eastern art. Eigner is a fluent Arabic speaker (his mother is Lebanese) and one of his first interests was modern art from the region. Goedhuis, meanwhile, had “begun dealing with Colnaghi gallery, then owned by Jacob Rothschild. For a few years, we were the leading dealers of Islamic art in the west and I became very interested in Islamic calligraphy.”

Travel commitments mean they don’t see each other very often – “Saeb is very busy and always away,” says Goedhuis – though Eigner strives to combine business with art if possible. In 2012, he points out, the dates of the International Organisation of Securities Commissions conference in Beijing in May segue neatly into those of the Art HK fair in Hong Kong. And in March, a meeting of the Dubai FSA coincided with Art Dubai.

“I wish we were in touch much more,” says Goedhuis, “because he also has a remarkable wife and a wonderful son, who is always asking questions about art.”

A collector in the making, then? Or an artist? For while Eigner was sketched by China’s most eminent painters, his son, then six, drew the artists, including Yang Xiaobin, with his head blown up. A precociously sophisticated reference, perhaps, to the fact that Yang’s paintings often feature giant heads.

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