Former cabbie buys $242m Modigliani

Amedeo Modigliani’s Nu Couche was sold to Mr Liu Yiqian (above) at a Christie’s auction in New York on Monday.
Amedeo Modigliani’s Nu Couche was sold to Mr Liu Yiqian (above) at a Christie’s auction in New York on Monday. PHOTOS: APPLE DAILY, REUTERS
Amedeo Modigliani’s Nu Couche (above) was sold to Mr Liu Yiqian at a Christie’s auction in New York on Monday.
Amedeo Modigliani’s Nu Couche (above) was sold to Mr Liu Yiqian at a Christie’s auction in New York on Monday.

Chinese billionaire Liu Yiqian had broken other auction records with art purchases, including the Ming dynasty "chicken cup"

BEIJING • Mr Liu Yiqian, a former taxi driver turned billionaire art collector, confirmed on Tuesday that he was the buyer of the painting of a nude woman by Amedeo Modigliani that sold for US$170.4 million (S$242.2 million) at Christie's New York on Monday night.

Speaking by telephone from Shanghai, the Chinese collector said he planned to bring the work back to the city, where he and his wife have two private museums.

"We are planning to exhibit it for the museum's fifth anniversary," he said. "It will be an opportunity for Chinese art lovers to see good artworks without having to leave the country, which is one of the main reasons why we founded the museums."

Bidding by telephone, Mr Liu, 52, was one of six people competing for Modigliani's 1917-18 canvas, Nu Couche, during the auction. The final price of US$170.4 million with fees was well above the previous auction record of US$70.7 million for a work by Modigliani. With Mr Liu's winning bid, the painting became the 10th work of art to reach the elite nine-figure club for works sold at auctions.

It will be an opportunity for Chinese art lovers to see good artworks without having to leave the country.

MR LIU YIQIAN on why he bought the painting for his private museum

"Modigliani's works already have a pretty established value on the market," Mr Liu said. "This work is relatively nice compared to his other nude paintings. And his nude paintings have been collected by some of the world's top museums."

As a teenager growing up in Shanghai during the tumultuous years of the Cultural Revolution, he sold handbags on the street and later worked as a taxi driver. After dropping out of middle school, he went on to ride the wave of China's economic opening and reform, making a fortune through stock trading in real estate and pharmaceuticals in the 1980s and 1990s. According to the 2015 Bloomberg Billionaires Index, he is worth at least US$1.5 billion.

"To me, art collecting is primarily a process of learning about art," he said in an interview with The New York Times in 2013. "First you must be fond of the art. Then you can have an understanding of it."

Mr Liu, together with his wife, Ms Wang Wei, is one of China's most visible - some say flashy - art collectors. Over the years, they have built a vast collection of both traditional and contemporary Chinese art, much of which is displayed in their two museums in Shanghai: the Long Museum Pudong, which opened in 2012; and the Long Museum West Bund, which opened last year. Ms Wang, 52, is the director of both museums.

"I first came up with the idea that the Long Museum should collect international objects about two years ago," said Ms Wang, adding that her husband has been very supportive of her work.

The couple's collection includes a 15th-century silk hanging, called a thangka, bought by Mr Liu for US$45 million at a Christie's auction in Hong Kong last year. The purchase made headlines when it set the record for a Chinese artwork sold at an international auction.

With that purchase, Mr Liu broke a record he had set months earlier when he paid US$36.3 million at a Sotheby's sale for a tiny Ming dynasty porcelain cup known as a "chicken cup".

Soon after, he caused an uproar after a photograph that showed him sipping tea from the antique cup spread online. He reportedly said: "This cup dates back 600 years. The emperor and concubine should have used it. I was simply trying to breathe in their immortality."

For both record-setting acquisitions, he reportedly paid with an American Express credit card, earning him many millions of reward points.

The couple's self-promotion tactics have prompted some in contemporary art circles in China to draw comparisons with "taxi tycoon" Robert Scull and his wife Ethel, voracious collectors of what came to be known as Pop Art in the 1960s but derided by some in the art world as crass nouveaux riche.

Speaking about Mr Liu and Ms Wang, Mr Philip Tinari, director of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing, said: "These are collectors who have so much money that they acquire taste or they don't have to have taste because they buy everything in sight."

He added: "There's very little discrimination, they just buy the most expensive things. They're not connoisseurs."

Nu Couche will be the most expensive artwork in the couple's collection, Mr Liu said.

But when asked whether he planned to pay with the credit card again, he demurred.

"The payment method will be carried out in accordance with Christie's guidelines," he said.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 12, 2015, with the headline 'Former cabbie buys $242m Modigliani'. Print Edition | Subscribe