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October 20, 1985|WILLIAM WILSON

LONDON — Almost any amount of bother is rewarded by one more look at the tragic magnificence of the Elgin Marbles, or a bask in the cozy grandeur of Trafalgar Square. All the same, potential visitors should be advised that London has been swamped in people of late. A spate of nice fall weather after a wet summer caused Britons to crowd the parks on recent Sundays. Hotels were so jammed with tourists and businesspeople taking advantage of still relatively cheap pounds that a visitor could spend a couple of hungry hours looking for dinner before a kindly head waiter took him in.

A shift in the weather or the money market could change all this, but London is crowded at even the worst of times, so the need for a moment of calm contemplation always arrives. The perfect--if somewhat disquieting--answer to that inner call is a curious private museum that opened in February in the quiet London neighborhood of St. John's Wood.

The gallery's location is so understated that it's virtually mute. Citizens could walk by its gray-gated entrance daily and never know that this is the fabled Saatchi Museum that has so captured the attention of the art press. They say the 50-artist, 500-work collection adds up to the greatest contemporary cache in private hands. They say the industrial building revamped to house it is the sine qua non setting for such art.

If you can find it. The entrance identifies itself only as "98a Boundry Road." Most people could be forgiven if they were more taken with the nearest cross street. Oh boy, Abbey Road. Where are the Beatles of yore?

Well, to some extent, the spirit of their decade is alive and living in the Saatchi Museum. Not since the '60s has the art world attracted such glamorous, high-rolling and controversial collectors as Charles and Doris Saatchi. He is 43, lean, dark and handsome, a son of an Iraqi Jew who immigrated to England in World War II. She is lean, blond, glamorous, American-born and contributes articles to art journals. At least that's the way they look in photographs and printed biographies: They don't see reporters or give interviews, guarding their privacy with a firmness worthy of Howard Hughes and Greta Garbo. That, of course, just whets everybody's curiosity.

Speculation as to their motives for collecting has been rife, and sometimes hostile. Conceptual artist Hans Haake produced a documentary work that made dark innuendoes of links between the Saatchis' politics, collecting and influence on state-subsidized art institutions. Charles' advertising firm of Saatchi & Saatchi handled the publicity campaign that helped put Margaret Thatcher and the Conservatives in office in 1979. He served on key councils at the Tate and Whitechapel galleries and was a major lender to their exhibitions. Such generosity is invariably greeted in some quarters with the suspicion that institutional prestige is being used to drive up private prices.

A kindlier estimate sees the pair simply as passionate connoisseurs who find an idealism in art that may be lacking in the advertising business. Whatever their motives, no one seems inclined to deny that they have put together a private cache of astonishing quality, depth and scope. They are said to spend some $2 million a year on art made largely after 1965. It's concentrated mainly on artists of the Minimalist persuasion but branches into Pop, Neo-Expressionism or offbeat talents like those of Jim Nutt or Leon Golub.

The Saatchis collect in depth, rarely having fewer than six works by an artist and often a couple of dozen. Their only near rivals in the field are Italian Count Giuseppe Panza di Biumo and German chocolate magnate Peter Ludwig. According to Whitechapel gallery director Nicholas Serota, the presence of the Saatchi collection is a particular boon to England, which lacks regular deep exposure to international contemporary art.

Before gaining its own showplace, the Saatchis' collection was known mainly through institutional loans, such as a selection seen in Los Angeles in the Museum of Contemporary Art's inaugural collectors' exhibition, "The First Show." (Characteristically, the Sphinx-like pair were the only ones of eight collectors who declined to be interviewed for the catalogue essay.)

The Saatchi Museum has particular significance for MOCA. Superficially, the two have similar showplaces in industrial buildings. About the only lesson for MOCA in that is a suggestion that they just leave Temporary Contemporary alone; it is just fine.

The Saatchi holdings, on the other hand, set a standard for MOCA that will be difficult to equal. But it is encouraging to note that first-rate works of contemporary art remain in private hands, still potentially accessible to public institutions. (MOCA can also congratulate itself on its purchase of blocks of earlier contemporary art from the Panza collection; it is clearly an intelligent way to demonstrate individual creative growth.)

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