After Mega Donation, Swiss Art Collector Forced To Respond To Chinese Critics

Factory 798 in Beijing
Factory 798 in Beijing
Marion Girault-Rime
Wang Jun

Two months ago, Uli Sigg, the Swiss art collector and Switzerland’s former Ambassador to China, donated 1463 pieces of his Chinese contemporary art collection to Hong Kong’s M+ museum. The bequest, which included works by 350 artists such as Ai Weiwei and Zhang Xiaogan, initially received widespread praise. Then on June 25,the Art Critic column of the Oriental Morning Post, a Shanghai-based Chinese newspaper, slammed the affair. “The donated works aren’t worth their HK$1.3 billion ($163 million) valuation.” the columnist Zhu Qi declared. “They are mostly junk.”

The column went on to state that The M+ Museum had purchased another 47 Uli Sigg works. “They are not worth their HK$177 million ($22.7 million) pricetag. In fact it’s just a preparation by Sigg to sell off the rest of his Chinese contemporary art collection.”

The article has set off a fierce debate within China’s artistic circle ever since. Sigg came to Beijing last week and accepted, for the first time since the bickering started, to give us an exclusive interview to respond to the questioning.

E.O.: The skeptics believe that the thousand-plus works of your donation have no great academic value. Zhu Qi said that “Among Sigg’s collection there are of course individual works of value, but quite a number of them are just trash.”

Uli Sigg: First, I am really astonished by such a discussion. At the same time, the answer to such a question is very simple. Apart from a few persons at the M+ Museum and myself, nobody else knows what I own and what I have donated to the museum this time, because it’s a huge amount and we haven’t announced the detailed list of the collection. Some works have been included in the ten published catalogues. But the 200 odd works in these published catalogues represent only one-tenth of my collection. Very few of the ten catalogues are actually present in China. I’m just so surprised that there are so many experts about my collection.

The doubters believe that you are giving the poorer quality pieces in your collection to the museum while planning to sell off the rest.

I chose what I consider as important works, in a chronological order, to give to M+ as a gift. I regard my collection as core material and the best part of it was handed over to the M+. In addition, I have set up a “Chinese Contemporary Art Foundation” in Switzerland and donated more than 200 works to it as well. The rest is what I have kept. When two works are similar I give one away and keep the other. Some works were given to me by artists as presents, others are works with personal emotion and memories, those are what I keep. I have no plan to sell any of my Chinese contemporary art works. I had repeated this many times. I have never sold them! Why can’t they believe it?

The skeptics say they have come up with some proof, that you contacted two auction houses in China and are intending to sell off Chen Yanning’s "Chairman Mao Visiting the Rural Areas of Guangdong," (worth more than $12 million)

First of all, many institutions and individuals have written to me and proposed buying the painting. Second, I have always emphasized that I won’t sell my contemporary art collection. Nevertheless, this does not mean I won’t sell any of my collection. Apart from Chinese contemporary art, I also collect art work from other parts of the world as well as the Red Classics series of other periods of Chinese art.
"Chairman Mao Visiting the Rural Areas of Guangdong" is a piece of work from the Cultural Revolution period. It doesn’t belong to contemporary art, but to the Red Classics series. It’s not to be confused and used as a proof that I intend to sell my contemporary art collection.
Up to now I haven’t planned to sell the painting. But I don’t know about the future. In any case I have the freedom to do what I want to do with it.

The reason why I didn’t give this painting to M+ is because I consider the work to be more important to the Chinese mainland. So I kept it.

Some doubters pointed out that M+ is to be opened only in 2017 so there is no hurry for the donation, but is really just a preparation for a sell-off.

This is because the doubter doesn’t understand how to build a museum. It’s only five years between my donation of the works and the museum’s completion. Within the next five years, M+ has to conduct studies about these thousand-plus works, to prepare publications about them. The exhibition halls’ design also has to take into account the collection. Five years are not a lot for doing all this.
It is also reasonable that I start considering the future home of my collection at my age. There are a few big museums being built in Asia right now. It’s a good opportunity. With a collection, the ongoing construction of a museum has a direction to follow.

You have mentioned earlier that your collection covers all the world. Have you met this kind of skepticism only in China?

Yes, only in China. (Laugh) The rest of the world considers this donation of mine to be generous. Everybody thinks that I have done something good for China.

In light of this case, would you ever donate works to a Chinese museum again?

I will probably still do it again (laugh).

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Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum


SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.

It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

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