How to buy a masterpiece and get free flights for life

When Liu Yiqian paid €160m for a Modigliani painting, he put it on his credit card, and the air miles he earned mean he and his family will never pay for a flight again


Even as the cost of his quarry pulled away from the $100 (€93) million mark, 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,” Liu recalled in his Beijing hotel room on Friday. “I told her: ‘Why are you so nervous? I’m the one paying, and I’m not even nervous. Just buy it.’”

Thus did Liu manage to secure “it” – an oil portrait of an outstretched nude woman by the early-20th-century artist Amedeo Modigliani – at a Christie’s auction in New York on Nov. 9. During the tense nine-minute sale, he beat out five opponents by offering $170.4 (€160) million with fees, the second-highest price ever paid for an artwork at auction.

Liu said that he had no plans to sell the painting. There is another, more personal, benefit to the acquisition: airfare. Wang confirmed that, as in the past, she and Liu would be using their American Express card to pay for the Modigliani. That way, with the cardholder’s points they accrue, their whole family can continue flying for free, for the rest of their lives.

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

The highest price ever paid for a painting is for Picasso’s 1955 work Les Femmes d’Alger (Version ‘O’), which sold for $179.4 (€168) million including fees at a Christie’s auction in May. “As soon as I heard that it went to an Asian buyer, I knew it was him,” said Wang Wei, Liu’s wife, who was in Hong Kong at the time. “Modigliani didn’t make very many nude paintings, and this is one of his best,” she added. “It was definitely worth it.”

Before last week, Liu and Wang, 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 $36.3 million at a Sotheby’s auction, and proceeded to be photographed drinking tea from the antique vessel.

Wang is known as the driving force and general director behind the couple’s Long Museum, which has two locations in Shanghai. (“Long” means “dragon” in Chinese.) Over more than 20 years, the two 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, Liu and Wang were back at it, flying to Beijing to attend the fall sales of a 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, Liu said, says world class quite like a Modigliani nude. “Every museum dreams of having a Modigliani nude,” Liu said. “Now, a Chinese museum has a globally recognized masterpiece, and my fellow countrymen no longer have to leave the country to see a Western masterpiece. I feel very 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 Couch, that message certainly seems to have gotten across. “This purchase was a proclamation of his arrival,” said 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.”

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 ‘70s, 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 Wang, who was working as a typist at Shanghai Normal University. By the late 1980s, with China’s economic liberalization in full swing, Liu’s 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 Wang’s friends. According to Forbes, his assets in 2015 totaled $1.22 billion.

China’s art market was still in its nascent stages when Liu and Wang began attending auctions and buying art in the early 1990s. What started as a hobby became an obsession. While Liu preferred collecting traditional Chinese artworks and objects, Wang focused on acquiring art from the Cultural Revolution era and, later, contemporary Chinese art and art from throughout Asia. They began to collect Western artists as well, and their holdings now include work from Jeff Koons’ mirror-polished sculpture series.

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

Cai Jinqing, president of Christie’s China, said the couple represented the “best example” of this generation of Chinese art collectors. “They started with collecting what they know, Chinese art, then broadened to Asian art, and are now embracing Western art,” Cai said. But few collectors in China flaunt their wealth the way Liu and Wang do, particularly as the government cracks down on extravagance. Liu, who is an active stock trader, said he was not concerned about the crackdown, stating that he acquired his money through legal means.

Many have criticized the couple for profligacy and a perceived lack of taste. In discussions about them, the word “tuhao,” a popular Chinese term for crass nouveaux riches, is frequently tossed around. “I am definitely a tuhao,” Liu said defiantly. “But at least this tuhao is bringing a masterpiece back to China for the Chinese people to enjoy.”

– NYT Service

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