How China tycoon Liu Yiqian came to own $242m Modigliani nude

"I was on the phone with a girl from Christie's Hong Kong who was bidding on my behalf and she kept dropping the phone because she was so nervous. I told her, 'Why are you so nervous? I'm the one paying and I'm not even nervous. Just buy it.'" — CH
"I was on the phone with a girl from Christie's Hong Kong who was bidding on my behalf and she kept dropping the phone because she was so nervous. I told her, 'Why are you so nervous? I'm the one paying and I'm not even nervous. Just buy it.'" — CHINESE BILLIONAIRE LIU YIQIAN (above), on buying Amedeo Modigliani's Nu Couche PHOTOS: NEW YORK TIMES, REUTERS
"I was on the phone with a girl from Christie's Hong Kong who was bidding on my behalf and she kept dropping the phone because she was so nervous. I told her, 'Why are you so nervous? I'm the one paying and I'm not even nervous. Just buy it.'" — CH
"I was on the phone with a girl from Christie's Hong Kong who was bidding on my behalf and she kept dropping the phone because she was so nervous. I told her, 'Why are you so nervous? I'm the one paying and I'm not even nervous. Just buy it.'" — CHINESE BILLIONAIRE LIU YIQIAN, on buying Amedeo Modigliani's Nu Couche (above)

Mr Liu Yiqian, who paid $242 million for a Modigliani nude painting, wants to transform his museum into a world-class destination

BEIJING • Even as the cost of his quarry pulled away from the US$100-million (S$142.5-million) mark, Mr Liu Yiqian remained calm.

"I was on the phone with a girl from Christie's Hong Kong who was bidding on my behalf and she kept dropping the phone because she was so nervous," Mr Liu recalled in his Beijing hotel room last Friday.

"I told her, 'Why are you so nervous? I'm the one paying and I'm not even nervous. Just buy it.'"

Thus he managed to secure "it" - an oil portrait of an outstretched nude woman by early-20th-century artist Amedeo Modigliani - at a Christie's auction in New York City on Nov 9.

During the tense nine-minute sale, he beat five opponents by offering US$170.4 million with fees, the second-highest price ever paid for an artwork at auction.

The highest price paid was for Picasso's 1955 painting Les Femmes D'Alger (Version 'O'), which sold for US$179.4 million, including fees, at a Christie's auction last May.

"As soon as I heard that it went to an Asian buyer, I knew it was him," said Madam Wang Wei, Mr Liu's wife, who was in Hong Kong at the time.

"Modigliani didn't make many nude paintings and this is one of his best," she added. "It was definitely worth it."

Before last week, the couple, both 52, had already made a name for themselves in China's art circles, he in particular as the most flamboyant of the country's small group of major collectors.

To many, he is the brash former taxi driver-turned-billionaire who provoked an uproar when he bought a tiny Ming dynasty porcelain cup for US$36.3 million at a Sotheby's auction - and proceeded to be photographed drinking tea from the antique vessel.

Madam Wang is known as the driving force and general director behind their Long Museum, which has two locations in Shanghai. "Long" means dragon in Chinese.

Over more than 20 years, they have amassed an extensive collection of mostly traditional and contemporary Chinese art, much of it on display in the museum locations.

Days after their latest blockbuster purchase, they were back at it, flying to Beijing to attend the autumn sales of top auction house China Guardian.

They said their goal was to transform the Long Museum into a world-class destination that could compete with the likes of the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim Museum in New York.

And nothing, Mr Liu said, says world-class quite like a Modigliani nude.

"Every museum dreams of having a Modigliani nude," he said.

"Now, a Chinese museum has a globally recognised masterpiece and my fellow countrymen no longer have to leave the country to see a Western masterpiece. I feel proud about that."

He added: "The message to the West is clear - we have bought their buildings, we have bought their companies and, now, we are going to buy their art."

With his acquisition of the nude, a 1917-18 canvas known as Nu Couche, that message certainly seems to have gotten across.

"This purchase was a proclamation of his arrival," said Mr Thomas Galbraith, managing director of auctions at Paddle8, an online auction house. "Anyone in the art world who didn't know his name knows it now."

Mr Liu's rise is a classic rags-to-riches tale of post-Mao China.

Growing up in a working-class family in Shanghai in the 1960s and 1970s, he said he knew early on that he wanted to go into business.

After dropping out of middle school, he began selling leather handbags and later drove a taxi.

In 1983, he was still eking out a living as a small-time businessman when he met Madam Wang, who was working as a typist at Shanghai Normal University.

By the late 1980s, with China's economic liberalisation in full swing, Mr Liu said his fortunes turned as a series of investments he had made began to take off.

Today, he is chairman of the Sunline Group, a holding company in Shanghai whose interests include chemicals and real estate development.

In addition to owning a stake in a pharmaceutical company, he was also an early investor in Beijing Council International Auction, a company started by one of Madam Wang's friends. According to Forbes, his assets this year totalled US$1.22 billion.

China's art market was still in its nascent stages when he and his wife began attending auctions and buying art in the early 1990s. What started as a hobby became an obsession.

While Mr Liu preferred collecting traditional Chinese artworks and objects, Madam Wang focused on acquiring art from the Cultural Revolution era and, later, contemporary Chinese art and art from throughout Asia.

They began to collect works from Western artists as well and their holdings now include pieces from Jeff Koons' mirror-polished sculpture series.

Several years ago, Madam Wang, a self-proclaimed art fanatic, came up with the idea of opening a museum so that they could show their collection to the public. But first, she needed to persuade Mr Liu.

"All of our friends were buying private planes and he said he wanted to buy a plane too," she said.

"I refused. I said, 'Let's just put in some more money and start a museum. It will be good for Shanghai and it will be good for the country."

So, in 2012, they opened the Long Museum Pudong. Last year, they opened the second location, the Long Museum West Bund.

Although they received a discount from the government for the land in the West Bund area, Madam Wang said almost all of the operation costs - about US$9.5 million for both museums this year - are covered by her and her husband.

"I think the rest of my life and money will be dedicated to building up this museum," Mr Liu said.

The couple plan to open a third location next year in Chongqing.

Few collectors in China flaunt their wealth the way they do, particularly as the government cracks down on extravagance.

Mr Liu, an active stock trader, said he was not concerned about the crackdown, stating that he acquired his money through legal means.

There is another, more personal, benefit to their latest acquisition - airfare.

Madam Wang confirmed that, as in the past, she and Mr Liu would use their American Express card to pay for the Modigliani.

That way, with the cardholder's points they accrue, the family - with their four children and two grandchildren - can continue flying for free.

Madam Wang said they are on a payment plan for the painting. "If we had to pay cash upfront, that would be a little difficult for us. I mean, who has the money for that?" she said.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 19, 2015, with the headline 'A China tycoon's grand ambition'. Print Edition | Subscribe