Is Charles in Charge? Charles Saatchi Amassed and Lost Two Great Collections of Contemporary Art - Making a Fortune in the Process. Now He's Gambling on Painting. Will It Pay off or Leave the 20th Century's Greatest Art Trader with No Worthy Legacy? Godfrey Barker Reports

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Byline: GODFREY BARKER

Last week, 2,500 people gathered in County Hall to celebrate the opening of Charles Saatchi's new exhibition. Salman Rushdie, Padma Lakshmi and, of course, Saatchi's wife, Nigella Lawson, gazed sagely upon the latest collection, while less stellar guests joined a long queue for champagne. As usual, the host Charles Saatchi did not grace his own party. However, if anyone wanted an insight into the art collector's current enthusiasms, they needed only to look at the walls.

These were hung with works by Luc Tuymans, Marlene Dumas, Hermann Nitsch, Martin Kippenberger, Peter Doig and Jorg Immendorf - none of them English and most of them practising in that most old-fashioned of media, canvas and paint (although Nitsch has been known to splash a bit of blood around his studio).

And this from Charles Saatchi, the man indelibly associated with art of a very different sort; sculptures made from cows, sharks, oil, dung and tampons executed by young British artists.

In true adman style, the opening party (and concomitant exhibition) was titled The Triumph of Painting, as if no one had considered the technique worthy of attention before.

But not everyone was convinced. The Triumph of Painting drew some damning reviews. It was called 'uneven', 'a triumph of packaging'; with paintings described as 'extremely ill-assorted', some of them even 'pretty worthless'.

All agree that it does not have anything like the style of the collection Saatchi amassed in the Eighties which included works by Andy Warhol and Lucian Freud, and cool minimalism by Donald Judd, Robert Ryman, Carl Andre and Brice Martin. Nor does it have the impact of his Sensation exhibition at the Royal Academy, which more than lived up to its title when it was exhibited in London in 1997. On the wall was Marcus Garvey's Myra, on the floor were Tracey Emin's tent of lovers, Damien Hirst's shark and cow's head with insect-o-cutor, Ron Mueck's Dead Dad sculpture, and Marc Quinn's own head modelled in nine pints of his frozen blood. Groupies had seen it all for some years at Saatchi's prison-like warehouse in Boundary Road near Swiss Cottage, but once it hit the RA, it hit fame.

But now observers are wondering whether Saatchi still has his magic touch.

There is a feeling in the contemporary art world that he had two great collections and lost them both.

He parted with an entire collection of minimalists during the period from 1989 to 1993. It was not a voluntary sale: at the time, his ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi was heading for crisis. His sales at Sotheby's NY plunged minimalism into its own financial crisis: values for these artists fell by up to 50 per cent as a result. There are dealers like Mayfair gallery owner Tim Taylor who think these sales were the biggest mistake of Saatchi's life.

When his finances picked up again, he began investing in the YBAs. But observers say the best of that collection either went up in the Momart warehouse fire last May, or has been sold.

This month Saatchi took $12 million from the hedge fund titan Steve Cohen for The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (aka Damien Hirst's shark). The price dwarfs those paid for exported work by Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon or David Hockney.

Before Christmas, he parted with Rachel Whiteread's no less iconic work, Ghost - her plaster model of an East End living room which first made her reputation. This went to the National Gallery of Art in Washington for an unknown sum, assumed to be over $1 million. Both were sold through the world's rudest art dealer, Larry Gagosian of King's Cross and New York.

Last summer, Saatchi sold back 12 more early Hirsts to dealer Jay Jopling.

The rumourmongers insist that Hirst quarrelled with Saatchi over his display at County Hall and Saatchi sold him out as an 'up yours' gesture - a rumour that Jopling will neither confirm nor deny. …