China taxi driver turned tycoon Liu Yiqian stuns art world with record-setting purchases

Mr Liu Yiqian has a personal wealth of US$1.38 billion (S$1.96 billion), according to Forbes magazine.
Mr Liu Yiqian has a personal wealth of US$1.38 billion (S$1.96 billion), according to Forbes magazine.PHOTO: APPLE DAILY

SHANGHAI (AFP) - Chinese tycoon Liu Yiqian, a taxi driver turned financier, has stunned the art world with his record-setting purchases, the latest a famed Modigliani nude costing more than US$170 million (S$242 million).

Nu Couche, or Reclining Nude, painted by the Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani in 1917-1918, was sold to Mr Liu after a frantic nine-minute bidding war at a Christie's auction in New York on Monday (Nov 9).

A spokesman for Mr Liu told AFP on Wednesday that the Modigliani would be displayed at his Long Museum Pudong in 2017 to mark its fifth anniversary.

Largely unknown outside his native China and rarefied art circles, 51-year-old Mr Liu has made a string of purchases for his two museums in China's commercial hub of Shanghai.

  • THE LONG MUSEUM IN SHANGHAI

    Ms Wang Wei, co-founder of the Long Museum in Shanghai, with Beige Portrait by artist Yu Hong.

  • In the February issue of The Life, ST's digital magazine, you can find out about the Long Museum from its co-founder Wang Wei (above), Mr Liu Yiqian's wife, and see photos of some art pieces from their collection.

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With a personal wealth of US$1.38 billion according to Forbes magazine, he is among the ranks of the new Chinese super-rich.

He made his first fortune speculating in Shanghai's newly established stock market in the 1990s, but now runs a huge conglomerate active in several industries.

In one of his most high-profile acquisitions, he set a record for Chinese porcelain last year by paying just over US$36 million for a tiny Ming Dynasty cup with a rooster and a hen tending to their chicks.

He later posted photos of himself drinking tea out of the vessel, known as a "chicken cup" for its painted motif, sparking an uproar on social media.

In April, he paid US$14.7 million for a 800-year-old Southern Song dynasty vase tinted a milky blue and in March he snapped up a 600-year-old album of Ming dynasty Buddhist art and calligraphy for US$14 million.

He has sought to justify some of his purchases as patriotism, claiming he is returning objects to China that were taken or looted from the country.

"Like the Gettys and the Guggenheims and the Whitneys... there's a long history of museums in the West, and maybe now in China of collectors, wanting to make a name for themselves and make a mark on history," Ms Clare Jacobson, author of New Museums in China, told AFP last year.

Last year, he paid a record US$45 million for a Tibetan "thangka" tapestry from the 15th century and later said it was part of his bid to bring historic artworks back to the mainland.

Beijing has ruled Tibet since 1951, a year after invading, and considers the Himalayan region an integral part of its territory, but the Tibetan government in exile and some scholars dispute China's historical claims.

Mr Liu is not without controversy of his own.

His US$8.2 million purchase of a scroll of nine Chinese characters supposedly dating to the Song Dynasty of 960-1279 was derided as a fake by a group of respected Chinese experts.

Mr Liu has largely shunned the media spotlight following a New York Times series on China's art market that called him a "new collector".

Long Museum spokesman Hu Xiaofei dismissed worries that the sensuous Modigliani nude might run afoul of the Chinese authorities, who have previously shut down exhibits deemed "pornographic".

"It's art and the duty of the museum is to share cutting-edge artwork with everyone," she said.

Critics say Mr Liu's taste tends to be eclectic, with his collection ranging from ancient to modern times, and spanning both Chinese and foreign artists.

"Our shows are all very fresh and at the vanguard," Ms Hu said. "The public does not live in the 70s and 80s. It's the 21st century now."