Paying tens of millions of dollars for a painting or a sculpture is nothing new. For decades now, auction houses have been doing a remarkable job and one record after another came tumbling down. Among the ‘usual suspects’ were Picasso, Rothko, Bacon, and a whole bunch of Pop artists and Post Impressionists.
This week, a 1917 nude painting titled ‘Nu Couché’ by the sensational Modigliani was sold for $170.4 million at Chrtistie’s New York, becoming the second most expensive work of art ever sold at auction. Till here it would have been just another piece of news, but…
The painting was acquired by a Chinese billionaire called Liu Yiqian, and the fact that he had started his career as a taxi driver caused an uproar among several self-righteous experts and critics that rushed to label him as a culture vulture with a stock exchange mentality and no taste. Nevertheless, his story is –to my mind- way more interesting than the purchase itself. New York Times reported the story of Liu Yiqian, the taxi-driver that turned into a billionaire and an extraordinary art collector:
As a teenager growing up in Shanghai during the tumultuous years of the Cultural Revolution, Mr. Liu 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, Mr. Liu is worth at least $1.5 billion.
“To me, art collecting is primarily a process of learning about art,” Mr. Liu 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, 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 $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 $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.
For both record-setting acquisitions, Mr. Liu 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 the “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, Philip Tinari, director of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing, said: “These are collectors that have so much money that they acquire taste or they don’t have to have to 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.”
Source: New York Times. Click here for the full article.