O utside of my family I have two real passions: investing and art,” says Christopher Tsai as he pours tea from a clear glass decanter into two small cups. It is late afternoon and the light is pale inside the 19th-century house on Manhattan’s Upper East Side that he shares with his husband, designer André Stockamp and their young twin daughters. “I’m very particular about my tea. This is from Mariage Frères. One of my favourites.” Along with the tea, Tsai offers sakura kahoron, pastel-coloured, cube-shaped Japanese confections that he brought back from a recent trip to Hakone and Tokyo. The 40-year-old financial wunderkind of the investment management firm Tsai Capital Corporation is seated on a bench before a long wooden table, at either end of which are casts of the rooster and the ox from Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads: Gold, by Ai Weiwei, the artist who Tsai collects in the most depth.
“It’s very popular in finance, for fund managers in particular, to have one of each – one Hirst and one Koons and one Richard Prince,” says Tsai. “And it’s a very social thing, to have friends over and look at the Koons. I want people to come over and say, what’s that? I want people to think about the art and not the name.”
This is precisely the reaction most visitors have – curators and experts included – when they see the group of early works by Ai that are dispersed throughout the house. The initial mystery delights Tsai. “At first nobody guesses Weiwei,” he says with a smile. “There really is not a lot of his work from the 1970s left, much has been lost or destroyed, and the artist doesn’t even know.” There are roughly a dozen early pieces in Tsai’s collection, including a finely rendered line drawing of Shanghai rooftops from 1979; a study based on entwined figures, from a Dunhuang cave painting; and a view of a river and bridge that suggests early André Derain. Made when Ai was in his twenties, the works are counterevidence to the charge that he is foremost a political provocateur rather than an artist of formidable range and skill.
The only thing more surprising than the works themselves is the story of their acquisition. Several years ago, an independent dealer and Chinese art-market insider contacted Tsai after she discovered that Ai’s English teacher (the artist came to the US in 1981 and studied at Berkeley) was still in possession of pieces acquired directly from the artist in the early 1980s. The teacher had boxed up the works and forgotten about them until the dealer called. “The dealer contacted me and we got in touch with Weiwei to ask if they were real, first of all,” says Tsai. “He confirmed that they were, and I snapped them up.”
He already knew the artist, quite well in fact. In 2005, Tsai and Stockamp commissioned him to design a house for them in upstate New York. Resembling a series of interconnected boxes, the structure was completed in 2008. “It felt like living inside a sculpture,” says Tsai. “When it came to decorating, we asked Weiwei ‘how should we be thinking about furniture?’ and he said, ‘Put a chair in the corner. Done.’” Children made such spartan living less feasible, so Tsai sold the house in 2013. But their commitment to Ai’s art has only grown. “We actually did not own any of his work until after the house was completed,” Tsai explains. “Once I discover an artist I take some time to learn, to understand the fundamentals. That’s the terminology we use in looking at a company – consider it from multiple angles. I don’t just buy because my eye says I love it. I only buy what I love but only after doing a considerable amount of research.
“The house took about three years to complete. We had a lot of interaction with Weiwei in those years and then we started to live in the house, which gave me a whole new appreciation for his aesthetic.”
The experience also changed his collecting. Together with Stockamp, Tsai began buying contemporary Chinese art in 2003 – the early days of the market. “A lot of the work was very powerful to me, and also relatively inexpensive,” he says. They travelled to China and concentrated mostly on figurative painting and photography by such artists as Zhang Xiaogang, Liu Ye, Yue Minjun, Shi Chong, Fang Lijun, Rong Rong and Hong Lei. Then something shifted. “I learned that I prefer more conceptual work,” Tsai says. “I think living in the house spurred that to some degree. It was so minimalist.” He decided to focus on Ai as well as a few other artists, and sold a large part, though not all, of his holdings.
Tsai puts the number of Ai’s works he has acquired at around 50, one of the largest and most significant in private hands, spanning every decade from the 1970s on. The artist is actively involved in curating the selections. “We want to create a collection that is meaningful to the history of art and expressive of our time,” says Tsai. “That’s a bold statement but I do think, looking years ahead, Weiwei will be unquestionably meaningful to the history of art.”
Ai is the “bedrock” of the Stockamp Tsai collection, but other artists have captured their interest. One is Xie Nanxing, a young Beijing-based painter who Tsai describes as “under the radar and undervalued.” For him, these are ideal conditions; the longer an artist stays undiscovered the better. “I can buy more at a discount,” he says. “It’s like buying shares in a company that you know will be worth more in five or ten years. The last thing we want is for the stock to go up as we start buying.”
At the moment he is also researching the Belgian artist Berlinde De Bruyckere, whose wax and wood sculptures of human and animal forms have a gothic sensibility that Tsai finds “beautiful, haunting and intellectual.” He and Stockamp encountered De Bruyckere’s work at the last Venice Biennale. “We’ve met her and we’re doing our homework,” Tsai says. “We haven’t bought anything yet. We want to get to know her better.”
Acquisitions, however, could be forthcoming. Tsai is renovating a penthouse in Berlin that overlooks the Bode Museum, and he thinks De Bruyckere’s work might fit well there, alongside the pieces of severe, geometric furniture by fashion designer Rick Owens that he has collected.
What connects these disparate creators and their output? “There isn’t a thread that connects Berlinde to Nanxing and Nanxing to Weiwei other than they all have their own intellectual qualities,” says Tsai. “Each of these artists has a lot to say and their work touches a part of my soul. The Stockamp Tsai Collection is not nearly as comprehensive as it will eventually be. We’re still early on in process and I’m in no rush.”
Meghan Dailey is Executive Editor of Sotheby’s and has written for W magazine, The New Yorker and other publications.