Chinese tycoon shopping for more Western art

Liu Yiqian.
Liu Yiqian.

HONG KONG • He first stunned the auction world by snapping up hugely expensive Chinese antiquities, but now taxi driver- turned-tycoon Liu Yiqian is targeting Western masterpieces, saying it is his "social responsibility" to show them to China's younger generation.

He has become China's highest profile art collector, hitting headlines with record-breaking buys and an irreverent approach.

His acquisitions have mainly been of Chinese heritage, most famously the tiny Ming dynasty "Chicken Cup" for which he paid US$36 million (S$49 million) in 2014 at Sotheby's before drinking tea from it, causing a social media meltdown. But, in a departure from his Chinese collecting spree last year, Liu splashed out on Modigliani's Nu Couche or Reclining Nude for more than US$170 million at Christie's, the second-highest price paid to date at auction for a work of art.

He says he hopes the museum he founded in Shanghai, the Long Museum, where much of his collection is on display across two branches, will increasingly become a showcase for Western art as well as Chinese classics.

The Modigliani is due to go on show at the museum next year.

"The world is globalised... our collection is mainly Chinese traditional works of art, (but) we are going to expand into Western and Asian works. I hope in my lifetime I can collect more from both China and the West," he said in a recent interview at Christie's regional headquarters in Hong Kong.

He said he felt a "social responsibility" to enable Chinese youngsters to experience Western masters.

"Other than Chinese traditional and contemporary works of art, younger generations in China have developed deeper recognition of Western works," he said, relaxing in an armchair and talking through a haze of cigarette smoke after cutting the ribbon at a preview ahead of Christie's spring sales next month.

"I hope top Western works of art can be exhibited in Shanghai or in our country. I think it's something someone has to do... it's cultural exchange."

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

Having made his fortune in real estate and finance in the 1990s, he now runs a huge conglomerate across several industries from chemicals to investments.

His auction buys have not been without controversy - his US$8.2- million purchase of an "ancient" scroll of nine Chinese characters was derided as a fake by a group of respected Chinese experts, but he brushed off the scepticism.

He remains unapologetic over drinking from the valuable porcelain Chicken Cup, depicting a rooster and hen tending their chicks.

"I wasn't showing off," he said, drinking this time from an ordinary tea cup. "I was just being myself."

While he is eyeing Western works, he is still snapping up Chinese pieces. This month, he bought a painting by Chinese master Zhang Daqian for US$35.93 million at Sotheby's - a new record for the artist at auction.

Liu has said before that his moves to buy up Chinese antiquities are part of a bid to bring heritage back to the mainland. He paid a record US$45 million in 2014 for a 15th- century Tibetan thangka tapestry at a Christie's auction.

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

"We should not be obsessed with how these things (Chinese antiquities) spread overseas," Liu said. "It doesn't matter where they are. The most important thing is for them to be preserved."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 18, 2016, with the headline 'Chinese tycoon shopping for more Western art'. Subscribe