Saatchi Art: Who is Charles Saatchi?

Charles Saatchi has had a momentous impact on art over the previous decades. Read on to find out about the man, his empire, and his influence on the art industry today.

Apr 26, 2020By Mia Forbes, BA in Classics
Photo of British art tycoon, Charles Saatchi
British art tycoon Charles Saatchi arrives at Isleworth Crown Court in west London on November 28, 2013.  AFP PHOTO / ANDREW COWIE

Although an undisputed titan in the art world, Charles Saatchi remains an enigmatic character: he rarely gives interviews and even refused to appear in his own television show! To find out more about this mysterious mogul, we have to look at a variety of anecdotes and evidence from one of the industry’s most impressive careers. Read on to piece together the puzzle of Charles Saatchi.

10. Even As A Child, Charles Saatchi Had An Eye For Aesthetic

Pasiphaë, Jackson Pollock, 1943, via The Met
Pasiphaë, Jackson Pollock, 1943, via The Met

Born in 1943 to a Jewish family in Iraq, Saatchi moved to London as a child, where his father established a prosperous textiles firm. This line of business undoubtedly exposed the young Saatchi to ideas about design and aesthetic, which would continue to influence him throughout his youth.

While at school, Saatchi became interested in American popular culture, and developed an obsession for the bold, rebellious and iconic. He was a particular fan of rock and roll musicians such as Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry, and when he eventually visited the United States, Saatchi described the experience of seeing a Jackson Pollock painting at New York’s Museum of Modern Art as ‘life-changing’.


9. He Launched Straight Into His Career As A Young Man

Wall Drawing #370, Sol LeWitt, via The Met
Wall Drawing #370, Sol LeWitt, via The Met

At 18 years of age, Saatchi went straight to work as a copywriter in London’s advertising industry. He initially worked at Benton & Bowles, an agency responsible for some of the earliest TV commercials, where he formed a friendship with one of the artistic directors, Ross Cramer. In 1967, Cramer and Saatchi left the firm to form their own eponymous company, meaning that at only 24, Charles Saatchi was already the head of his own advertising agency. 

Another important step in Saatchi’s career came two years later, at the age of 26, when he purchased his first serious piece of art. Although there are various speculations about exactly which drawing or painting Saatchi acquired, it is known to have been a piece by prominent New York minimalist, Sol LeWitt. This marked the beginning of one of the world’s most important art collections.


8. He Made His Name With The Iconic Saatchi & Saatchi Agency

'Labour Isn't Working' campaign, Saatchi & Saatchi, 1979
‘Labour Isn’t Working’ campaign, Saatchi & Saatchi, 1979

After a range of business ventures in his early career, Saatchi at last struck gold in 1970, when he opened the Saatchi & Saatchi advertising agency with his brother, Maurice. Over the following decade they acquired multiple other firms, until Saatchi & Saatchi had become the world’s largest company of its kind. 

They operated across the world with a staggering number of offices (over 600) and many of their campaigns became household names. Perhaps the most influential of these was their 1979 political promotion of the British Conservative Party. The famous slogan ‘Labour Isn’t Working’ was one of the key factors in the election of the infamous Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. 


7. And Later Opened The World-Famous Saatchi Gallery

The Saatchi Gallery, Chelsea, London, via SaatchiGallery
The Saatchi Gallery, Chelsea, London, via SaatchiGallery

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At the height of Saatchi & Saatchi’s success, Charles bought a huge empty warehouse in north London, and commissioned architect Max Gordon to transform the space into a gallery. He filled it with his vast private collection, which included works by the likes of Andy Warhol, Anselm Kiefer and Donald Judd. In 1985, Saatchi opened it up to the public. 

Since it first opened its doors, the Saatchi Gallery has changed locations twice and is now situated in Chelsea, one of London’s most affluent areas. Based on recent surveys, it ranks as one of the world’s most visited galleries, with over 1.5m art-lovers flocking to its exhibitions and displays each year. 

6. Saatchi Has Been Instrumental In Many Important Artistic Careers

shark sculpture damien hirst
The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, Damien Hirst, 1991, via DamienHirst

Charles Saatchi changed the way that art collecting worked. Instead of buying a few valuable pieces from well-known artists, he took risks, investing in many promising young artists and capitalizing on their success for years – or even decades – later. This meant that he played an important role in the careers of many British artists. 

In the 1990s, Saatchi bought a vast number of works by Damian Hirst and Tracey Emin, who are considered figureheads of the Young British Artist (YBA) movement that started in that decade. The patronage of Charles Saatchi was one of the most valuable accolades an artist could receive, but his influence over the world of art also meant that he could effectively end someone’s career before it even started. 


5. Saatchi Gifted His Amazing Gallery To The British Public

My Bed, Tracey Emin, 1998, via Tate 
My Bed 1998 Tracey Emin born 1963 Lent by The Duerckheim Collection 2015

In 2010, Charles Saatchi donated not only his gallery, but also many of his most precious pieces of art to the British public. Among them was Tracey Emin’s My Bed, which is considered an important feminist artwork, and the deliberately provocative work of the Chapman brothers

The 200 pieces of art donated by Saatchi are thought to have valued over £30m at the time, and likely more today. Along with the generous gift, Saatchi also promised that the maintenance costs would be fully covered, at no cost to the nation. 


4. Saatchi Has Amassed A Huge Fortune

Andy Warhol Art piece
Double Disaster: Silver Car Crash, Andy Warhol, 1963, sold at Sotheby’s for £65m, via SaatchiGallery

So prolific were Saatchi’s collecting habits, that his annual expenditure in the 1980s easily reached seven figures. He was determined to seek out and support each year’s most promising new talents, and so spent vast sums on buying up an array of potentially lucrative pieces. 

Saatchi more than made up for his huge spending sprees with some incredible sales. In 1991 and 1992, he bought a blood-filled sculpture by Marc Quinn for $22,000 and Damien Hirst’s famous shark for $84,000. In 2005, he sold the former for $2.7m and the latter for $13m. Because of deals such as these, Charles Saatchi, along with his brother Maurice, is thought to be worth a staggering £144m, ranking as one of the most successful players in the British art game.


3. Despite His Fame & Fortune, Saatchi Is Known As A Recluse

Charles Saatchi, via The World's Best Ever
Charles Saatchi, via The World’s Best Ever

Despite his fame and fortune, Charles Saatchi stays out of the limelight: photos of him are rare and interviews even rarer. Even though he lent his name to it, he did not appear once onscreen during a television series entitled School of Saatchi, which offered young British artists the opportunity to showcase their work. Even his website is password-protected.

Facing huge pressure from the media and the public, it is understandable that Saatchi would want to shield his private life, but he is also said to be secretive at work, hiding from clients at his agency’s offices and refusing to attend exhibition openings, even his own!


2. But That Hasn’t Stopped Him Appearing In Tabloids

A tabloid headline from 2011, via The National Post
A tabloid headline from 2011, via The National Post

Many of the Saatchi & Saatchi advertising campaigns are considered offensive by today’s society, mainly because of their portrayal of gender and race. And yet, surprisingly, Charles Saatchi seems to have survived ‘cancel culture’, perhaps by keeping himself out of the celebrity spotlight.

In 2013, however, Saatchi hit the headlines in what would prove to be the greatest scandal of his career. A member of the paparazzi had caught him with his hands around the throat of his third wife, TV chef Nigella Lawson. Although Saatchi claimed that it was nothing more than a ‘playful tiff’, both the British media and authorities were unpersuaded, and he received a formal caution. A high-profile divorce case soon followed. 


1. Charles Saatchi Has Utterly Transformed The Global Art Industry

My Name Is Charles Saatchi and I Am an Artoholic, by Charles Saatchi, via Book Depository

Charles Saatchi acts as both an art collector and an art dealer. His fast-paced, high-reward deals set new standards, and his career has shown the art industry many new ways of doing business. By seizing the opportunity to sponsor Young British Artists (YBAs) before they became widely-known, Saatchi put himself in a position of immense power. He also became an important figure in the branch of modern art that would eventually lead to the now-universal concept of ‘brand identity’. 

Saatchi’s influence on art spans both time and place, emanating from Britain across the globe. Many of the artists whom he introduced to the mainstream went on to inspire countless more painters, sculptors, and designers, from Ai Weiwei to Subodh Gupta. A great number of the world’s most significant contemporary artists, therefore, can credit their career in some way to Charles Saatchi. 

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By Mia ForbesBA in ClassicsMia is a contributing writer from London, with a passion for literature and history. She holds a BA in Classics from the University of Cambridge. Both at work and at home, Mia is surrounded by books, and enjoys writing about great works of fiction and poetry. Her first translation is due to be published next year.