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Friday, July 09, 2004 - Page updated at 12:04 P.M.

Visual Arts
Seattle collects . . . art collectors

By Sheila Farr
Seattle Times art critic

BENJAMIN BENSCHNEIDER / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Ruth and Bill True, who focus on video and new media, are among the Seattleites in the ARTnews "World's 200 Top Art Collectors" list.
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The Seattle area is home to five of the world's top art collectors, according to a survey released Wednesday.

Paul Allen, Melinda and Bill Gates, Pamela and Barney Ebsworth, Ruth and Bill True, and Virginia and Bagley Wright have all spent enough on art in the past year to qualify for the ARTnews "World's 200 Top Art Collectors" list.

For the second year in a row, the biggest spender was Sheikh Saud Al-Thani of Qatar. "He buys more than anyone in the whole world," said Robin Cembalest, executive editor of the New York-based magazine. Las Vegas-based gambling tycoon Stephen Wynn also pushed into this year's top ten.

Seattle's concentration of major players puts it in heady company. New York still rules as the city with the most top collectors (55), followed by London with 17, Paris with 14, Los Angeles with 10, San Francisco with 6 and Seattle and Aspen both with 5.

The survey doesn't attempt to measure the scope or importance of the art collections: it goes purely by numbers, Cembalest said.

STEVE RINGMAN / THE SEATTLE TIMES
The collection of Virginia and Bagley Wright started with post-World War II abstraction and spans to the latest in contemporary art.
Gathering sales information from art dealers, galleries, auction houses and museum acquisition committees, ARTnews editors compile their list on the basis of how much each individual or couple spent. Last year the Wrights didn't make the list, although they had been on it in the past. This year, they are back on.

Virginia Wright says their vacillating place in the top 200 makes no sense to her. "We were actually much more active during times they didn't include us," she said. "It makes you wonder how trustworthy these lists are."

She speculates that ARTnews might rely heavily on auction figures. "We haven't been very active at auction for quite a while," she said. "We did buy an Eva Hesse at a London auction."

People in Seattle have had ample opportunity to see the Wright's collection, which started with post-World War II abstraction and spans to the latest in contemporary art. The Seattle Art Museum (SAM) published a catalog and hosted a major exhibit of the Wright's collection in 1999, and the couple continues to show work at their Wright Exhibition Space, a private gallery on Dexter Avenue.

The Ebsworth collection of American art also has showed at SAM, and part of the Trues' contemporary-art collection — focused on video and new media — is on display at the Henry Art Gallery. Influenced by the Wrights, the Trues recently opened their own private art space, Western Bridge, at 3412 Fourth Ave. S.

VULCAN
Paul Allen
The high-tech billionaires, however, have mostly kept their art collections under wraps. Except for the SAM show of the Gates' Leonardo da Vinci Codex in 1997, Gates and Allen have kept their art holdings a mystery. ARTnews lists the focus of Allen's collection as Impressionism, Old Masters, Pop and tribal art, and the Gates collection as American art, especially Impressionism, and rare books.

"I hear from the grapevine they are buying major examples," Wright said. "The hope is that one day some of that material will come to the museum."

Meanwhile, take with a grain of salt ARTnews' information about what or how much collectors are buying. In the Wrights' case, the magazine is publishing old information. It lists one focus of their collection as Japanese art and textiles, but that's a good 20 years out of date, Virginia said. "It was a one-shot thing where Bagley bought a collection for the museum."

Sheila Farr: sfarr@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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