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Why a former Taxi Driver paid $170 million for a Nude painting

China Becomes Player in the Global Art Market

China’s art scene is vibrant as never before. The West has been collecting Chinese art since the time of the Kunst- and Wunderkammer—the Renaissance “art-rooms” or “wonder-rooms” that were the predecessors of modern art galleries—but today roles have been reversed, with Asian collectors now acquiring Western art.

In 2012, ARTnews magazine—for the first time—included a Chinese couple on their list of the top 200 art collectors in the world. Liu Yiqian and Wang Wei have been collecting art for over 20 years. Focusing on Chinese art—traditional, revolutionary, and contemporary—the couple decided recently to focus their attention on the European masters. With ample capital resources, they are seeking works by the most popular painters of the 20th century.

Liu first earned a living as a handbag vendor in the street markets of Shanghai. He later became a taxi driver.

Liu Yiqian and his wife Wang Wei. Photo credit Philippe Lopez.
Liu Yiqian and his wife Wang Wei. Photo credit Philippe Lopez.

Both have made long journeys to come to the pinnacle of the art-collecting world. From a poor background (and a school drop out), Liu first earned a living as a handbag vendor in the street markets of Shanghai with his mother. He later became a taxi driver.

In the 1980s and 1990s, as China’s economy was transforming rapidly under the onslaught of capitalist restructurings, Liu dove into life as a modern entrepreneur. Eventually, he earned his fortune in stock trading, real estate, and pharmaceuticals. By 2015, the Bloomberg Billionaires Index reported Liu’s net worth as approximately $1.5 billion. With his wife Wang Wei, he began collecting art in the early 1990s.


Long Museum West Bund
Long Museum West Bund

Based in Shanghai, Liu owns two of the most influential museums in China. His wife serves as director at both. The Long Museum West Bund opened in 2014 and is located on the western shore of the Huangpu River. This area is a former manufacturing hub that is slowly transforming into a cultural center, with the goal to compete with Western art districts, such as New York’s Museum Mile and London’s South Bank.


Olafur Eliasson
Olafur Eliasson

The museum’s wide spaces are suitable for large-scale exhibitions. In 2016, the museum hosted an installation by the artist Olafur Eliasson; it is considered his most comprehensive exhibition to date. In 2017, they managed to win over James Turrell, whose sublime light installations integrate themselves into the shimmering neon city lights surrounding the Huangpu River seamlessly.

Both Long museums are manifestations of the rise of China as a true competitor in the global art market

The Long Museum Pudong opened its doors in 2012. The main attraction of the museum is a permanent exhibition area for the “Red Classics,” unique works dating from the early era of Communist Party rule in China. You can systematically discover artistic creations that span the World War II-era Yan’an Rectification Movement to the “Reform and Opening Up” period of recent decades. The museum includes a reading room and academic auditorium, along with more social areas, such as its art shop and café.

Both Long museums are manifestations of the rise of China as a true competitor in the global art market. Not only do they contain the largest private collection of Chinese art—ranging from traditional to revolutionary to contemporary— but they also house modern art from all around the globe.


Nu Couché by Amadeo Modigliani
Nu Couché by Amadeo Modigliani

The new centerpiece of Liu’s collection is the recently purchased Nu Couché by Amadeo Modigliani. His purchase at a Christie’s auction in New York made headlines. Liu won the piece with a $170.4 million bid, the second highest ever for a painting, surpassed only by the purchase of Pablo Picasso’s Les Femmes d’Alger. Only 10 art pieces have ever exceeded the $100 million threshold.


China Becomes Player in the Global Art Market. The Thangka Liu Yiqian bought for a record $45 million (Source Christie's)
The Thangka Liu Yiqian bought for a record $45 million (Source: Christie’s)

The Thangka Liu Yiqian bought for a record $45 million (Source Christie’s)Liu’s investments often make it into the headlines. In 2014, Liu purchased a 15th-century Ming Dynasty silk hanging (a thangka) for $45 million, a record for a piece of Chinese art. And a media outcry occurred when Liu not only purchased a tiny Qing dynasty porcelain cup for more than $36 million in 2014 but also celebrated his purchase by publicly sipping tea from it.

Recent developments make plain the rising status of Chinese art investors on the global art market. Museums in China—large, small, government-backed, privately-funded—are opening like mad. In 2011 alone, more than 300 new facilities sprang up. And the pace is not slackening. China is opening museums on a surreal scale. Financial heavyweights like Liu, with their aggressive collection-building purchases, ensure that these new institutions will attract visitors. As a result, Chinese capital will continue to influence the prices at art auctions around the world.

Lucky Dragon. Lola Zhao. Photo credit Key Lime Photography

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