In 2006, the market for Chinese contemporary art was exploding. After 28 years of economic reform, and with the Beijing Summer Olympics and Shanghai World Fair just around the corner, art galleries and museums were launching every week, and auction prices were soaring.
In November of that year, Christie’s Hong Kong achieved record sales of modern and contemporary Asian art. Tiananmen Square by Zhang Xiaogang (b. 1958) sold for more than HK$18.02 million (€2.3 million), setting the world auction record for a contemporary Chinese painting at the time.
Meanwhile, more than 9,000km away in Paris, Count and Countess Jean-Jacques de Flers were one step ahead. In 2003, they had bought Camarade, a portrait from Xiaogang’s now sought-after Bloodline series, at the Galerie de France.
‘The work shows a man with an empty look [that] seems to say: “we have suffered so much, we have no right to express anything”’ and a red mark on his cheek that ‘refers to Mao’s Little Red Book,’ the couple told La Tribune et Moi.
The purchase — the top lot in a sale of the Flers’ collection, which will take place on 21 September at Christie’s in Paris — was typical of the couple’s adventurous approach. The inseparable duo, who died within a day of each other last November, were prominent figures on the Paris art scene, known for their intellectual curiosity and avant-garde tastes.
An erotic swing by Fabrice Hyber graced the entrance to their Neuilly townhouse, which was overflowing with art, gallerist Nathalie Obadia recalls. ‘It was a veritable Tower of Babel’ that prioritised ‘confrontation and dialogue’, she says.
‘Keith Haring rubbed shoulders with Wang Du and Anselm Kiefer replied to Chen Zhen, who watched Duan Jianyu, while AR Penck observed Yayoi Kusama,’ elaborates Paul Nyzam, senior specialist in Contemporary Art at Christie’s Paris.
The Flers didn’t only collect contemporary art — later Christie’s sales will focus on Old Masters, Decorative Arts and Manuscripts. But, following a meeting with Jean-Robert Arnaud, publisher of the contemporary art review Cimaise, it became their primary focus. And after visiting Paris-Pékin, an exhibition of the Ullens collection at the Espace Pierre Cardin in 2002, they became increasingly interested in China.
Taking advice from experts such as Jean-Marc Decrop, the owner of Galerie Loft, in 2003 they bought A Dying Rabbit by Liu Xiaodong (b. 1963) — a 2001 portrait of the bored unemployed, by the Neorealist painter of the monumental Three Gorges: Newly Displaced Population (2004).
Another purchase that year was Un village sans frontières (2000) — created by the conceptual artist Chen Zhen with children from the San Salvador slums out of candles, wax and wood, and described by Zhen as an ‘altar of light’.
In 2005, the Flers travelled to China, seeking further guidance from Xin Dong Cheng, the owner of three noted art galleries in Beijing. They bought the then-brand-new Sky No. 6 by Zeng Fanzhi (b. 1964 in Wuhan) at the ShangART Gallery in Shanghai.
As in the artist’s now-famous Mask Series, the face of the figure in this painting is concealed, this time by criss-crossed lines.
Zhang, Liu and Zeng all belong to the generation of Chinese artists who grew up during the Cultural Revolution and came of age in the 1980s and 1990s when artists were revelling in a new-found freedom. The Flers also admired Wang Guangyi (b. 1957) and Fang Lijun (b. 1963), as well as France-based Chinese artists Wang Du (b. 1956), Yan Pei Ming (b. 1960), Wang Keping (b. 1949) and Huang Yong Ping (1954-2019).
But their interest in Asian art didn’t stop at Chinese art. By 2006, when the latter was beginning to sell for what some regarded as overinflated prices, the Flers’ focus had shifted to India, including this emblematic sound installation by New Delhi-based Subodh Gupta (b. 1964) — now one of the subcontinent’s bestselling artists — as well as to Russia and the Middle East.
Back in France, meanwhile, they were among the first to champion street art — and to urge the art world to take it seriously as a movement in its own right.
They already had a Keith Haring, a work that used the 24 Hours car race in Le Mans to bring art down from its pedestal. And in 2013, they bought War is over (2007) by Shepard Fairey, a message of peace from the influential creator of Hope (2008), the Barack Obama portrait famously adopted for the future president’s election campaign.
As Nathalie Obadia remarked in Journal des Arts, these French aristocrats knew how to ‘shake up the bon chic bon genre aesthetic’.
Chief executive of Christie’s Guillaume Cerutti agrees: ‘They were pioneers and risk-takers who thought outside the box and focused on up-and-coming talent.’