Liu Yiqian, the Chinese billionaire with a proclivity for purchasing multimillion-dollar art using his American Express card, like a record-breaking $170 million dollar Modigliani, received the New Yorker treatment in this week’s issue.
The profile chronicles Liu’s rise from the working class to extreme wealth on the Chinese stock market in the 1990s, at a time when the country’s state-owned companies first began issuing shares. Liu’s brash bravado established, we learn how he later entered the art market to become one of China’s leading collectors, a move that has been characterized at various times, Jiayang Fan writes, as “a financial investment, a publicity stunt, a patriotic bid for the world’s attention, and an act of pure ostentation.” So, which one is it?
The answer seems to be a combination of them all. As owner of two art museums on Shanghai’s Huangpu River, Liu boasts China’s largest private art collection. Alexandra Munroe, the head of Asian Art at the Guggenheim Museum, offers this memorable characterization of Long Museum, one of his two institutions:
“They are lacking in the absolute fundamentals of how to handle art,” she told me. Walking through the antiquities section of the Long Museum West, she noted, with dismay, that fabric cords, which are attached to scrolls for the purpose of tying them when they are rolled up for storage, were left dangling in front of the art. “It’s the equivalent of walking into a museum here and seeing a van Gogh hung upside down,” she said. “It’s about custodianship. Just because you own the art and the museum doesn’t mean that you get to disrespect it.”