Why Doesn’t the UK Want Charles Saatchi’s Art Collection?

Tracey Emin's "My Bed"
Tracey Emin’s “My Bed” (1998) is included in the Saatchi collection (image via

Well, here’s a conundrum you don’t face everyday: famed art collector Charles Saatchi wants to donate his collection of contemporary work to his home country, the UK, but they don’t seem to want it. (First-world problems! Or perhaps 1%er problems!) Saatchi is known for championing Young British Artists (YBAs) like Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst before they were the big names they’ve become today, and his collection — which includes more than 200 artworks, among them pieces by Emin, Hirst, Jake and Dinos Chapman, Zhang Dali and Grayson Perry — is valued at £30 million ($47 million). So why won’t anyone take it?

The collector announced his intention to give the gift two years ago, and in that time, all the British government has done is fail to accept it. According to the Telegraph, Saatchi was first in talks with the Arts Council, a government-funded agency that already manages a collection of over 7,000 modern and contemporary artworks. He proposed to give his collection, as well as some other pieces that could be sold to raise money for new acquisitions, and he offered to cover the costs of maintaining it.

The Arts Council’s response was to ask if they could, you know, just choose the works they liked best. Saatchi found this “a bit rude,” according to a spokesman.

The representative said the next stop was the Government Art Collection; however, a government spokesman said, “There have been no specific discussions about transferring any of the works to the Government Art Collection.” So that’s confusing.

And then there was (or is) the possibility of giving the art to the Tate, one of Britain’s major art institutions. But Saatchi and Tate Director Nicholas Serota are something of art rivals. Jonathan Jones offers his take in the Guardian:

Tate did not light the fire of modern British art; Saatchi did. It was he who threw money at Damien Hirst when he was young and new and dangerous – and genuinely worth paying attention to. If art is about the new, we ought to have greater respect for Saatchi’s championing of the Young British Artists, at a time when they really were young. The Tate made no such bold commitment, and now appears to want to write his achievement out of history.

The UK, it should be noted, has made headlines many times before for last-ditch fundraising efforts to keep various Old Masters paintings in the country. This failure of the government to get its act together and merely accept a free contemporary collection seems even lamer in light of that.

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