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Billionaire Pinchuk, With Seven Hirsts, Is Art's Mystery Buyer

John Varoli,

Oct. 25 (Bloomberg) Ц Victor 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 Ц 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 OAO Novatek, Russia's second-largest natural-gas producer.

Behind the scenes, Pinchuk let Bloomberg television into his country house in Kiev's Koncha-Zaspa suburb to show even more paintings that art watchers did not know he possessed. Among them was Ilya Mashkov's 1912 painting ''Still Life With Flowers,'' sold on Dec. 1, 2005, for 2.14 million pounds ($4.39 million) Ц seven times its top estimate, and at that point the most expensive painting sold at a Russian auction.

Surprise Present

This was a spur-of-the-moment present for Pinchuk's wife Elena, who said she was ''very surprised'' at her birthday two days later.

''I still love Russian and Ukrainian impressionism and modernism, but my main focus now is contemporary art,'' Pinchuk said in an interview. Well groomed, wearing a suit minus a tie, he speaks fluent English. 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 Ukraine President Leonid Kuchma, owns Interpipe, Ukraine's biggest producer of steel pipes for oil and gas companies, as well as TV stations, and steelmaker VAT 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,'' said Bondarenko. ''At the same time he understands that collecting contemporary art will improve his international image.''

Growing Collection

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 Czarist-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 spent on the newest acquisitions that include Gursky's 7-by-11 foot photograph ''99 Cent II,'' which is a wide shot of the inside of an American supermarket where items cost no more than 99 cents.

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

Smelly Hirst

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. This work stirred the most emotions at the Kiev opening. It consists of 13 large canvases covered with flies and resin, as well as 12 cow heads in glass cases of formaldehyde. Many people complained the room smelled.

Other artworks were by Britons Antony Gormley and Peter Doig, Japan's Takashi Murakami, Ukrainian-born Russian artist, Oleg Kulik, and Ukrainian artists, Serhiy Bratkov, and Vasyl Tsagalov.

''I was surprised by how focused the Pinchuk collection is, and by how much all the art makes sense,'' Koons said in an interview. ''The space itself is very intimate and modern.''

Pinchuk now owns works by leading early-20th-century artists such as Nicholas Roerich, Konstantin Korovin and Pyotr Konchalovsky. He has about 500 to 600 contemporary works, acquired with the help of Western and Ukrainian curators. About 50 percent are Ukrainian, and 50 percent are international.

Ukraine Boom

Amid talk that ''the Russians are coming'' at art fairs, and as New York dealer Larry Gagosian opens a Moscow gallery to tap demand, Pinchuk is leading rich collectors from the former Soviet Union in snapping up contemporary art. He is riding economic growth in Ukraine which has averaged 8.4 percent annually since 2002.

Pinchuk has two daughters Ц one aged 24, from his first marriage, and another aged four with Elena. He holds parties at his Kiev apartment next to the gold-domed St. Sophia Cathedral.

He says he likes red wine, especially Burgundy, and is fascinated by nature: He has a Japanese garden several acres in size, with lakes and tea houses. He claims it is the largest in Europe, self-designed with the help of Japanese architects.

He also financed a film about Ukrainian jews and the Babi Yar massacre, ''Spell Your Name,'' which had Steven Spielberg as executive producer.

Bloomberg TV presents a report about Pinchuk as part of this weekend's Muse program. Check your local cable listings or see .

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