Collector Batia Ofer: ‘I like work that deals with the issues of the day — the things I want to have a debate about’

The founder of Art of Wishes — which hosts a charity auction at Raffles London on 9 October — discusses her collecting philosophy, and explains why she believes in ‘the power of a wish’ to help critically ill children survive difficult times

Batia Ofer Art of Wishes

Batia Ofer in her London home, with works by Yayoi Kusama, Robert Rauschenberg and Hannah Wilke. Artworks: © Yayoi Kusama. © Robert Rauschenberg Foundation/ VAGA at ARS, NY and DACS, London 2023. © Hannah Wilke, DACS 2023

The London sky is an uncharacteristic spring blue this morning, providing a striking contrast with the warm red tones of Batia Ofer’s beautiful apartment.

The philanthropist and art collector moved here with her family 10 years ago. ‘It took a little time to get used to the weather,’ she admits. However, she is very much a Londoner these days. ‘I am so lucky to live here; people are very accepting.’

Born into a family of art lovers (her father’s first name is Matisse), Ofer grew up in Israel and South Africa, surrounded by art. However, it was not until her husband, Idan Ofer, inherited half of his father’s art collection that she began to collect seriously.

‘To begin with, I tried to follow in my father-in-law’s footsteps,’ she says, referring to the late shipping magnate Sammy Ofer, who was a passionate collector of Impressionist and modern masterpieces, ‘but then I pivoted to my own personal interests.’

Those interests start with her family. Ofer is descended on her father’s side from Holocaust survivors, and wanted to understand what it was like for German artists growing up after the Second World War.

‘How did they deal with the trauma and pain caused by their predecessors? That is such a burden for German artists,’ she says, citing Sigmar Polke as an example of an artist whose complex and unconventionally beautiful paintings she finds compelling.

Albert Oehlen (b. 1954), Untitled, 2022. Watercolour, ink, pencil, and paper on paper, offered in the 2023 Art of Wishes charity auction

Albert Oehlen (b. 1954), Untitled, 2022. Watercolour, ink, pencil, and paper on paper. 24 x 18 in (61 x 45.7 cm). On view at the Art of Wishes exhibition at Christie’s in London, 3-7 October 2023, followed by the charity auction on 9 October at Raffles London at The OWO. Artwork: Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian

Today, Ofer is one of the world’s leading art collectors, and her interests range from David Hammons to Rose Wylie. Does she remember the first work of art she bought? ‘Of course, it was a photograph of Mark Rothko’s chapel by Thomas Struth. I really wanted a Rothko but I couldn’t afford it, so I bought the next best thing.’

Does she have a collecting strategy? ‘I try to provoke conversations between artworks,’ she says. ‘I like to be playful but also hint at a message that is important to me’ — indicating, by way of example, a series of crimson works on paper of a traditional nuclear family hanging opposite a picture of non-binary figures.

Grace Weaver, Untitled (Head), 2023. Oil on canvas, offered in the 2023 Art of Wishes charity auction

Grace Weaver (b. 1989), Untitled (Head), 2023. Oil on canvas. 55 x 51 in (140 x 129.5 cm). On view at the Art of Wishes exhibition at Christie’s in London, 3-7 October 2023, followed by the charity auction on 9 October at Raffles London at The OWO. Artwork: © Grace Weaver; courtesy of the artist and Galerie Max Hetzler Berlin | Paris | London

‘Maybe I am an activist collector,’ she says. ‘I like feminist artists such as Hannah Wilke and Yayoi Kusama, and I have work on the theme of social justice in the United States and on climate change. I like work that deals with the issues of the day — the things I want to have a debate about.’

Ofer splits her time between her homes, but prefers to be based in London. ‘You get great art and education here, and of course Frieze is really important if you are interested in contemporary art. Not just for the fair, but for all the events happening around it.’

Batia Ofer founded Art of Wishes in 2017 to raise money for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Artwork: © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein/DACS 2023

Batia Ofer founded Art of Wishes in 2017 to raise money for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Artwork: © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein/DACS 2023

Frieze Week is also when Ofer holds her gala auction. She is the founder of Art of Wishes, a charitable organisation that hosts art-world events in aid of Make-A-Wish UK, part of a global foundation that helps to fulfil the wishes of children with critical illnesses. Ofer began working with the charity after her younger sister passed away at the age of 26.

‘These are highly collectable artists, with long waiting lists. The auction is an opportunity for collectors to acquire something they might otherwise be waiting a long time for’

This year, Ofer and Christie’s will be hosting the fourth edition of the Art of Wishes auction, to be held at Raffles London at The OWO, a brand-new hotel in the old War Office building on Whitehall. More than 25 artists have donated paintings and sculptures — among them Alfredo Jaar, Jenny Holzer and Erwin Wurm, alongside a strong new-generation line-up including Michael ArmitageJadé Fadojutimi and Grace Weaver — which will be exhibited at Christie’s from 3 to 7 October 2023.

The previous auction raised more than £3 million for the foundation, and Ofer is hoping this year’s will be just as successful. ‘There are currently 60,000 children living with a critical condition in the UK,’ she says. ‘I believe in the power of a wish to bring optimism and hope during a very dark period in a child’s life.’

Jadé Fadojutimi (b. 1993), Untitled, 2023. Oil, acrylic, oil bar, and oil pastel on canvas, offered in the 2023 Art of Wishes charity auction

Jadé Fadojutimi (b. 1993), Untitled, 2023. Oil, acrylic, oil bar, and oil pastel on canvas. 51 3/16 x 55⅛ in (130 x 140 cm). On view at the Art of Wishes exhibition at Christie’s in London, 3-7 October 2023, followed by the charity auction on 9 October at Raffles London at The OWO. Artwork: Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian

The philanthropist says that the wishes children ask for always move her. Younes, a teenager diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, wanted to build wells to provide drinking water for a village in The Gambia. While 12-year-old Felix asked to fly in a helicopter, so that he might feel ‘as free as a bird’.

‘These children lose control of their lives,’ says Ofer. ‘They are isolated from their friends because they are immunosuppressed — it becomes all about hospital appointments. We do whatever we can to give the child and their family hope for the future.’

Alfredo Jaar (b. 1956), Embrace, 1995. C-type print, offered in the 2023 Art of Wishes charity auction

Alfredo Jaar (b. 1956), Embrace, 1995. C-type print. 59 x 39⅓ in (150 x 100 cm). From an edition of six plus three artist’s proofs. On view at the Art of Wishes exhibition at Christie’s in London, 3-7 October 2023, followed by the charity auction on 9 October at Raffles London at The OWO. Artwork: Courtesy of Goodman Gallery

The auction takes about a year to organise, and it is, she says, an ‘intense’ process.

‘We make a list of artists who are currently exciting us and speaking directly about issues we think are important,’ she explains. ‘Then we approach their galleries.’ This year Gagosian Gallery has facilitated donations by Edmund de Waal, Albert Oehlen and Stanley Whitney. ‘It is a phenomenal contribution,’ she says.

Stanley Whitney (b. 1946), Untitled, 2022. Gouache on paper, offered in the 2023 Art of Wishes charity auction

Stanley Whitney (b. 1946), Untitled, 2022. Gouache on paper. 22½ x 29⅞ in (57.2 x 75.9 cm). On view at the Art of Wishes exhibition at Christie’s in London, 3-7 October 2023, followed by the charity auction on 9 October at Raffles London at The OWO. Artwork: Courtesy of the artist and Gagosian

Once an artist has agreed to donate, it is a question of letting the buyers know. ‘These are highly collectable artists who have long waiting lists for artworks — there is a lot of competition. The auction is an opportunity for collectors to acquire something they might otherwise be waiting a long time for,’ says Ofer.

‘I believe in win-win situations,’ she adds. ‘It is not just about the charity making money: the artist needs to be happy the work has sold well, and the buyer needs to be happy with what they have bought.’

Sara Berman (b. 1976), Boyish, 2023. Oil on linen, offered in the 2023 Art of Wishes charity auction

Sara Berman (b. 1976), Boyish, 2023. Oil on linen. 25⅗ x 25⅗ in (65 x 65 cm). On view at the Art of Wishes exhibition at Christie’s in London, 3-7 October 2023, followed by the charity auction on 9 October at Raffles London at The OWO. Artwork: Donated by Sarah Berman, with thanks to Tamar Dresdner Art Projects and Kristin Hjellegjerde Gallery

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Does she get nervous on the night? ‘Yes, but there is so much goodwill out there. Ultimately the event is about the children, and whatever we can do to give them a sense of hope is a triumph.’

The Art of Wishes exhibition will be on show at Christie’s in London from 3 to 7 October 2023, followed by the charity auction on 9 October at Raffles London at The OWO

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