Pinchuk Emerges as Art's Mystery Buyer

bloombergJeff Koons' "Girl [Dots]" is one of the American artist's works on display at Pinchuk's art center in Kiev this month.
KIEV -- Viktor Pinchuk, a steel billionaire, has provided the answer to one of the biggest mysteries in the art market.

There has been much speculation about the buyers of contemporary masterpieces snapped up over the last two years amid suspicion that the anonymous spenders might be Russian. Now it can be revealed: One of the biggest is Pinchuk, a 46-year-old Ukrainian.

His collection includes some of the most expensive living artists: seven works by Briton Damien Hirst, two by American Jeff Koons, and six by German photographer Andreas Gursky. All three men attended the opening of an exhibition in Kiev this month displaying the works -- showing Pinchuk's strength of contacts and determination to put the city on the art map.

"Pinchuk is probably the top player from the former Soviet Union on the international contemporary art market," said Oxana Bondarenko, head of the Victoria Art Foundation, owned by Leonid Mikhelson, the billionaire chief executive of Novatek, the country's second-largest natural gas producer.

"I still love Russian and Ukrainian impressionism and modernism, but my main focus now is contemporary art," Pinchuk said in an interview. His passion for art collecting began in the early 1990s with pre-World War II Russian and Ukrainian paintings. He began collecting contemporary art in 2002.

Pinchuk, son-in-law of former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, owns Interpipe, Ukraine's biggest producer of steel pipes for oil and gas companies, as well as television stations, and steelmaker Dniprospetsstal. Forbes estimates Pinchuk's fortune at $2.8 billion, while he said, "The chief executive officer of my company estimates my fortune at $10 billion."

"Pinchuk knows what he's doing and has a sincere and strong passion for contemporary art," Bondarenko said. "At the same time, he understands that collecting contemporary art will improve his international image."

The new show is at the Pinchuk Art Center, which opened in September 2006 as the first private museum of contemporary art in the former Soviet Union. Admission is free and it had 150,000 visitors in its first year.

Pinchuk said he spent as much as $15 million to acquire and renovate the six-floor Tsarist-era building, though it is already too small. Next year, he starts work on a larger museum near the Dnieper River. He hopes it will be completed by 2012.

"We plan to make Kiev a really important international destination for contemporary art," he said. "Contemporary art will help modernize society, especially the young generation."

Pinchuk would not comment on how much he had spent on the newest acquisitions, which include Gursky's 2-by-3 meter photograph "99 Cent II," which is a wide shot of the inside of a U.S. supermarket where items cost no more than 99 cents.

"I bought some pieces through Sotheby's and Christie's, but I mainly buy directly from the artists and through their dealers."

The two paintings by Koons now in Pinchuk's collection are "Girl [Dots]," and "Landscape Waterfall II." Both are dated 2007. Among Hirst's works are "The Cancer Chronicles / Jesus and the Disciples" dated from 1994-2004.

"I was surprised by how focused the Pinchuk collection is, and by how much all the art makes sense," Koons said in an interview.