Swiss collector Uli Sigg in front of a painting by Chinese artist Fang Lijun, one of the works from his collection donated to Hong Kong’s M+ museum.

HONG KONG - Long known for his comprehensive collection of Chinese contemporary art – perhaps the largest in private hands – Uli Sigg recently gave away most of it to Hong Kong’s M+ Museum. To the bewilderment of Sigg, the former Swiss ambassador to China, this bold philanthropic gesture has landed him in the eye of an art world storm.

The whole thing was surprising,” says Sigg, referring to the controversy that his headline-grabbing donation has generated in mainland China. He would have expected the gift, which will bring 1,463 works by Chinese artists to the attention of an international audience, to create a buzz in the Hong Kong and western press, but the surge of negative comments on mainland Chinese websites “seems to have had more impact,” the 66-year-old says.

The announcement that Sigg had decided to donate a portion of his vast collection of Chinese contemporary art to M+, the Hong Kong contemporary art museum that is scheduled to open in 2017, was made in Hong Kong in June. Lars Nittve, Executive Director of M+, and Michael Lynch, CEO of the West Kowloon Cultural District, the vast development that will be the future home of the museum, then travelled to Art Basel the following day to for a special press event in Sigg’s home country. The news drew rounds of applause at first, as Sigg’s massive donation – valued at HK$1.3 billion (US$163 million), by Sotheby’s – represents a major step forward in the development of the HK$21.6 billion arts hub.

At the time, Sigg acknowledged that he selected a Hong Kong museum for his donation rather than one on mainland China. Given that the collection includes 26 pieces by artist-activist Ai Weiwei, he recognized that some mainland museums “were not willing to accept that kind of art.” Following the Sigg announcement, major Chinese artists, including Zhang Xiaogang, expressed gratitude that these works will be returning to Chinese soil, albeit in the Special Administrative Region, as Hong Kong is referred to.

A few weeks later, after news of the gift faded from the western press, online speculation questioning Sigg’s motives began to go viral in mainland China. Some asked why Sigg’s donation was structured in a way that included a cash purchase by the museum of 47 historic works from the late 1970s to 1980s, for HK$177 million (US$22.7 million) in addition to the outright gift. Others demeaned the quality of the collection, and raised cynical questions about why Sigg kept some 300 pieces for himself.

West Kowloon Cultural District Authority Board Chairman Stephen Lam presenting a souvenir to Uli Sigg at the ceremony of Sigg’s donation to M+.

Sigg says that he does not mind the debate, which he describes as “normal”; and he believes that the criticisms – which appear to have emerged only in China – are somehow related to the mainland culture, where “people always suspect motives. And there is no tradition of donation – donation is very strange [in mainland China].”

As for criticism of the museum’s payment of HK$177 million for a small portion of the acquisition – roughly 14 per cent of the estimated value of the entire collection he gave outright – Sigg explains that it was an important demonstration of the museum’s commitment to his collection. This formula is quite common when it comes to major donations to museums in the west.

Back in 1991, for example, Count Giuseppe Panza de Biumo transferred his vast collection of minimalist and conceptual art to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation through an agreement that included a cash purchase in addition to his donation. While the generosity of the Panza gift vastly exceeded the outlay by the Guggenheim, it brought both parties closer together in the partnership.

But Sigg rejects outright criticisms against the quality of the works that he has given or sold to M+. “No one knows the full collection except those few people at M+ and Sotheby’s. As a former journalist I wish that [debate] could be done in a professional way,” he says.

Inspite of its fame – part of Sigg’s collection was exhibited at the 1999 Venice Biennale, the first significant presentation of contemporary Chinese art – there hasn’t been any public documentation detailing the entire Sigg collection. The collection is said to tell the amazing story of the evolution of contemporary Chinese art from the late 1970s to the 2000s – a period that corresponds to the sweeping social and economic changes in China after the end of the Cultural Revolution and the beginning of the economic reform under Deng Xiaoping. When news of the donation broke, the announcement noted that it represented some 310 artists, including such figures as Ding Yi, Fang Lijung, Geng Jianyi, Gu Wenda, Huang Yongping, Liu Wei, Xu Bing and Zhang Xiaogang. But the entire roster is not yet public, and only 24 specific works have been identified, including Wang Keping’s 1979 wooden sculpture Chain, Wang Guangyi’s oil painting Death of Marat from 1986, and Gu Wenda’s Love & Hate, a 2005 ink work on rice paper.

These details have only increased the appetite for more information about the legendary collection. “At the beginning, I only collected works that I liked. And then I discovered that no one was collecting systematically,” Sigg says, recalling how surprised he was when he began collecting in the 1990s, about a decade after he first arrived in Beijing as a representative of Swiss engineering company The Schindler Group to set up the first joint venture between the newly opened China and the west.

Zhang Xiaogang’s Hong Haizi is one of the works Sigg donated to M+.

Sigg is keeping the first piece of contemporary Chinese art he acquired. He is reluctant to identify the artist or name the work, merely saying that it is a series of oil paintings by a female artist who has already stopped producing art. “At that time, not many works came from female artists. I bought it from her to support her,” he says.

His personal encounters with artists became an important way for him to collect the works. Not only because it was part of a very important research, he says, but also because there were no galleries representing these artists – there was no art market in China then.

Sigg has never sold a work from his collection, although he has been asked repeatedly. “I cannot expect artists to give me a good price and then I turn it over for a profit,” he says.

What follows the massive donation is an enormous amount of research and documentation. Nittve says “we will continue to detail the cataloguing of the collection, research particular works and, of course, make it available to the public on the internet.”

Yue Min Jun’s Founding Ceremony is one of the works Sigg donated to M+.

This work will be led by art critic Pi Li, who joined M+ as the museum’s senior curator in July, after leaving his teaching duties at the Central Academy of Fine Arts and his Beijing gallery Boers-li. Pi says that the collection provides a comprehensive narrative of various stages of contemporary Chinese art development from cynical realism to art media exploration, and while works from the 1970s and 1980s serve as background, works from the 1990s are of “A+” quality. “The 1990s are well covered. The most important artists and their most important works are all in our hands,” Pi says, adding that the collection has set a great foundation for the museum’s future, which he hopes to foster a complete narrative of contemporary Chinese art that takes art from Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and the larger Chinese diaspora into account.

The site of the West Kowloon Cultural District will be the future home of M+, and along with it Uli Sigg’s extraordinary collection of Chinese contemporary art. ©West Kowloon Cultural District.

Surprisingly, the first glimpse of the Sigg collection following the announcement will not be in Hong Kong, but rather selections will be on view in Australia in an exhibition called Go Figure!, jointly presented by The National Portrait Gallery in Canberra (13 September to 17 February 2013) and the Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation in Sydney (15 September to 1 December). The exhibition features 55 works, including paintings, sculpture, photography and installation works from 1979 to the present.

Mindful of the tremendous interest in the collection, M+ is exploring possible public exhibitions before the museum building opens in 2017. “When an appropriate space can be found in Hong Kong,” says Nittve, “we will surely also give the Hong Kong audience a first taste of the riches of the collection.”

As part of the donation agreement, M+ will dedicate at least 5,000 square metres to show the collection during the museum’s first three years. The museum has also promised to collaborate with Sigg on the Chinese Contemporary Art Award, which Sigg founded in 1997, as well as the CCAA Art Critic Award, which launched in 2007. The Sigg Collection is only the beginning for M+, and more news from the museum about future acquisitions is expected in the next few months.

At the moment Sigg says he has around 300 works left in his contemporary Chinese art collection and less than 100 pieces in his collection of other works. He will continue with his journey of art collecting, but “now I will look at more Hong Kong art production,” he says. And who will be the new artists on his radar? Sigg continues with his policy of being tight-lipped: “I’m reluctant to mention any one name.”

Vivienne Chow is the senior reporter, culture, at the South China Morning Post based in Hong Kong.

[This article originally appeared in Sotheby's at Auction. To subscribe click here.]