Mr. Liu Yiqian drinks tea from his prized Chicken Cup to celebrate its handover by Sotheby’s. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s
CHINA— When Chinese billionaire Liu Yiqian bought a 600-year-old imperial embroidered Tibetan tapestry at Christie’s auction for $45 million, there was instant response from across the globe. Although many people were not surprised about the art buy, the most pertinent issue for many art journalists was that by buying the piece, the 50-year-old collector had set a record for any Chinese work of art sold by an international auction house. The silk tapestry known as Thangka was created more than five centuries ago during the Ming dynasty on the command of Emperor Yongle.
This is not the first time Liu Yiqian, who has been described as an eccentric collector, has broken record auction price. Early this year, he bought the Meiyintang ‘Chicken Cup’, a tiny porcelain cup with a humble chicken painted on its surface for $36.3 million from Sotheby’s. Beyond the record price paid for the Chenghua-era (ca. 1465-1487) cup, Liu Yiqian, also sparked a major controversy when he took a sip from the almost $4 million cup. Many Chinese were not amused by his action, and they did not hide their disgust. Enraged by Liu’s maltreatment of a cultural treasure, many Chinese especially the young generation, labeled him tasteless. Some even described him as narcissistic, accusing him of showing off his wealth.
Liu Yiqian was quick to respond to the condemnation and uproar engendered by his drinking from this very expensive cultural treasure. According to him, drinking from the cup was a spontaneous response to events after the auction when a Sotheby’s staffer offered him tea. As a natural response, Liu Yiqian, who could not contain his excitement, poured some tea in the chicken cup and drank from it. Based on the images that emerge from the tea drinking episode, it is clear that Liu Yiqian enjoined drinking from the cup. With a big smile of satisfaction on his face, he raised the cup to his mouth joyfully. For Liu Yiqian, drinking from the cup may have had even deeper meaning: It creates a bond between Emperor Qianlong, who used the cup in the 14th century and Liu Yiqian, the present owner.
Liu Yiqian is not a stranger to controversies, and this is not the first time that he has stirred up controversy with his purchase of major cultural treasures. In 2013, Liu Yiqian generated a stormy art conversation after the calligraphy piece he purchased for $8.2 million at Sotheby’s New York was labeled as fake. The piece was attributed to Song Dynasty poet Su Shi who lived from 1037 to 1101. Soon after the piece was sold, three Chinese specialists came forward, noting that the calligraphy was not an original. Ironically, in the face of all the controversy, Liu Yiqian was exceptionally calm and was only interested in the facts. In the end, after many investigations and experiments, the piece was confirmed as original Song Dynasty poet Su Shi calligraphy by the three Chinese art historians.
The manner in which Liu Yiqian pays for his art purchases has also caused many of his critics to raise their eye brows. Liu has been very consistent in how he pays for his art purchases: American Express. When he bought the ‘chicken cup’, he paid using his America Express card, which he swiped 24 times. The payment for the Thangka was also purportedly made using his American Express card. The use of the American Express has helped Liu rake in a lot of points on his card.
Many of the works collected by Liu Yiqian are on display at the Long Museum, a museum he set up with his wealthy wife, Wang Wei in 2012. After years collecting art, Liu and his wife decided to open a private museum that would house their collection. Since it was established , the Long Museum located in Shanghai has been home to many of their collection which includes contemporary art by Chinese artists. The Museum contains revolutionary pieces from the Mao period and modern Chinese artworks by celebrated artists such as Chen Yifei and Fang Lijun. A new 30,000-square-foot branch of the museum was recently opened in the Shanghai’s West Bund district, creating more space for more collections.
Liu Yiqian, who is the chairman of Sunline Group, a Shanghai-based investment company represents a new generation of wealthy Asians who have benefited from China’s booming economy. Born in 1963 to an ordinary working class family in Shanghai, Liu path to the top was filled with patches and potholes. After dropping out of school at 14, Liu Yiqian began helping his mother with her handbag business. A smart business man, Yiqian outwitted his competitors by finding new ways to produce the bags cheaply and selling them at lower prices. It did not take long before he outsold his competitors.
From selling the handbags, Liu amassed a small amount of fortune. When he was 27 years old, he learned stock trading as a way of improving himself, and he was one of the earliest investors in the Shanghai stock. With his wife, Liu Yiqian has not only accumulated major art pieces from past and present China, they have continued to put China on the map as the world’s biggest fine art market. With all the wealth in China and the new generation of wealthy Asians, it is not surprising that many art auction houses are not setting up in Asia as a way of benefiting from this booming art market.