Wang Wei and Liu Yiqian
Liu Yiqian learned about art the way only a billionaire could. “Whenever I saw others bidding,” Liu told Bloomberg, “I just competed, and after I made the buy I would ask them, ‘Why is this piece good?’” Since those early beginnings he has amassed more than 2,300 works, filling his two museums in Shanghai with ancient scrolls, Tibetan silk embroideries, and imperial porcelains, along with contemporary pieces by Jeff Koons and Yayoi Kusama. In November 2015, Liu paid $170.4 million to add Modigliani’s canvas Nu Couché (1917-18) to his collection, which is curated by his wife, Wang Wei.
Other extravagant purchases include a $14 million (far surpassing the initial estimate of $150,000) 600-year-old album of Buddhist art and calligraphy at Sotheby’s New York in March 2015 and a $45 million 15th-century silk Tibetan thangka at Christie’s Hong Kong in November of the same year. The self-made former taxi driver has made headlines for reasons other than his spending habits. “Most other collectors are quite dull,” a London-based art dealer told Bloomberg. “He’s a cheeky chappy, it’s refreshing.” One of the antics that marked Liu as a “cheeky chappy” was his acquisition of the so-called chicken cup—a 500-year-old piece of Ming-dynasty porcelain—that he purchased in 2014 for $36.3 million. He paid for it by swiping his American Express card 24 times, simultaneously collecting the chicken cup and 422 million American Express Points. He later caused an uproar by posting a picture of himself drinking from the cup.