Swiss-born Monique Burger and her husband, Max, are big spenders when it comes to contemporary art. Joining the ranks of billionaires Roman Abramovich and Francois Pinault, the Hong Kong-based couple are among the world's 200 most active collectors, according to ARTnews magazine.
Since the early 1990s, they have amassed more than 1,000 artworks. Their collection spans 45 countries with artists ranging from record-breaking Chinese painters to heavyweights from the Western art world. Yet the Burgers are not your average trophy hunters. Rather than chasing the blue-chip set, they have developed an increasingly strategic approach to acquisitions.
Three years ago, the couple began collaborating with Zurich-based art historian and curator Daniel Kurjakovic to refine their collection. Describing the early days when Monique Burger acquired her first works, Kurjakovic says: 'It was an intuitive process. It was never about a strict concept or some abstract notion of a collection. It grew with a lot of conversations, experience and research.'
Recently, the Burgers have been 'buying in depth', or collecting several works by a single artist. Kurjakovic says they plan to focus on about 50 to 80 artists in the collection and add pieces from these names.
Independent art consultant Jonathan Crockett says that buying one prized canvas from a popular series has a bigger monetary impact than investing in several prints or lesser works by the same artist.
The Burgers typically pursue the best examples from an artist's collection. This is especially visible in their selection of works by the Chinese artist Zhang Xiaogang. Their collection features five of his paintings and one photograph.
Among the paintings are two highly valuable works from the artist's Bloodline: the Big Family series for which he shot to fame. They have also acquired an older painting entitled A Woman with Sheep, produced in 1985, at a seminal period in the artist's career.
Works from the 1980s such as this piece are considered relatively rare in the art market. Vinci Chang, head of sales for Christie's Asian contemporary and Chinese 20th-century art department, says: 'Zhang Xiaogang's paintings from the 1980s have all achieved good results in previous auctions.' The Burgers bought A Woman with Sheep at a 2007 Christie's sale for almost HK$5.37 million, nearly three times its highest estimate.
The art world tends to be split between two types of collectors: those who buy mostly from the primary market dealing closely with artists and reputable galleries, and those who buy from the secondary market either at auction or through private dealers.
The Burgers usually prefer the primary route. New collectors often gravitate to the latter as they find the past sales records from auctions reassuring. First-time buyers may also be reassured to see other bidders vying for the same work.
What many fail to realise, however, is that there are several advantages to acquiring art from galleries. 'Primary market prices are generally cheaper than secondary market prices when it comes to dealing with popular artwork by successful and competent artists,' says Crockett.
Moreover, primary collectors establish solid relationships with gallery owners, who can offer useful updates on artists and assist in finding high-quality works. 'This is very important for us because we are about following the artist's career,' says Kurjakovic. Communicating with gallery owners can also help new collectors determine key works.
While the Burger collection contains several highly priced pieces, many of their acquisitions also fall in the mid- to lower-price bracket. When the family moved to Hong Kong in the mid-2000s, they began investing heavily in a broad range of Asian artists. About 38 per cent of the collection is made up of Chinese contemporary artists.
In recent years, the Burgers have also developed a fascination for Indian art, buying a handful of the top sellers (Jitish Kallat and Bharti Kher) but also taking a chance on younger artists.
According to Kurjakovic, the sweet spot is the moment before an artist becomes exposed to a large audience. Burger, for instance, began to collect work by the Swiss installation artist Urs Fischer very early in the 1990s when he was not known. Today, his work has an international following. Collectors of Fischer's work are now often forced to buy on the spot. Two months ago, a Fischer sculpture, Untitled (Lamp/Bear), sold for US$6.8 million.
Recently, the Burgers bought a video work by Uruguayan artist Alejandro Cesarco from the Venice Biennale - a showcase for countries to present their best artists. Their participation is often seen as a stamp of approval from the art world and the value of an artist's work is known to rise once they have shown at Venice. The couple had already begun acquiring Cesarco's works two years prior to this exhibition.
So how does one find such artists? Some of this can be pure intuition, but Kurjakovic explains that there are 'art system markers' to determine the quality of an artist. It is important to study their resume and look at the reputation of museums that exhibit or collect their work, and the reputation of the art gallery representing them. The standing of their art school and degree can also be influential.
Perhaps most important is to go straight to the source and speak to the artist. 'In many cases, it is about being in touch with many professionals, especially with the artists,' says Kurjakovic. 'We have an ongoing correspondence with many of our artists. I think a lot of information and ideas come from the artists themselves.'
When asked about the Burgers' approach to their collection, he says spending time with artists and sharing their work with others is of utmost importance to them. The first public exhibition of works from the collection was staged in Berlin two years ago and the next should be in Hong Kong next year.
Pick up the pieces
Artworks recently added to the Burger collection:
Gao Weigang (China)
Robert Kinmont (US)
Just Try and Do the Best You Can (1968)
Vittorio Santoro (Switzerland)
12 Months Project Planner Piece (Silence Destroys Consequences) (2010)
Titus Kaphar (USA)
Gautam Kansara (India)
Don't Hurry, Don't Worry (2010)