HomeBusinessLiu Yiqian, China’s Top Art Collector, Is Selling a Modigliani

Liu Yiqian, China’s Top Art Collector, Is Selling a Modigliani

Few Chinese art collectors have had a greater impact on global auctions over the past decade than Liu Yiqian, a former taxi driver from Shanghai who amassed a fortune through his investments in Chinese real estate and pharmaceutical stocks. Notorious for his extravagant purchases of Chinese antiquities and other artworks, Liu Yiqian made headlines in 2014 when he paid a record-breaking $36.3 million for an ancient Chinese porcelain cup, followed by $45 million for a 600-year-old silk wall hanging. In 2015, he topped his previous purchases by spending $170.4 million on Amedeo Modigliani’s provocative painting, “Nu Couché”. Unable to display his extensive private collection in just one museum, Liu Yiqian and his wife, Wang Wei, built two additional museums in Shanghai and Chongqing to house their art collection.

Now, Liu and Wang have surprised the art world by consigning 40 artworks for auction at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong. Notable pieces include Modigliani’s “Paulette Jourdain,” which fetched $42.8 million in 2015, René Magritte’s “Le Miroir Unviersel,” with an estimated price of $9 million to $12 million, and David Hockney’s “A Picture of a Lion,” estimated to sell for $5.4 million to $7 million. Sotheby’s predicts that “Paulette Jourdain” will sell for over $45 million, and forecasts the auction to raise between $95 million and $135 million.

This auction marks the largest sale by a single owner that Sotheby’s has held in Asia and is the first major public auction by Liu and Wang. Although private trading of art is common among Chinese collectors, the decision to liquidate part of their collection has drawn significant attention in the Chinese art world. The timing of the auction coincides with a slowing Chinese economy, causing some to hope that the successful sale will boost confidence.

However, the reasons behind Liu and Wang’s decision to sell remain unclear. At this delicate economic moment, with slowing growth and declining stock prices, it is speculated that they may be seeking to capitalize on the value of their art holdings. The auction is moving swiftly, with exhibitions in Shanghai and Beijing already held earlier this month.

In recent years, Liu and his family have faced difficulties with their businesses. Their involvement in the Beijing Council International Auction Company, one of China’s largest art auction houses, came to an end when Beijing Council shut down at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, Jiangsu Hongtu High Technology, an electronics retailer that acquired Beijing Council, disclosed a regulatory investigation into financial misconduct. The delisting of Jiangsu Hongtu from the Shanghai Stock Exchange further compounded their challenges.

The Chinese art market has experienced a decline in prominence since Xi Jinping assumed leadership in 2012. Under his predecessor, government officials engaged in corrupt practices involving art auctions, but Xi began cracking down on corruption during his term. Sales of old masters in China fell by half in 2020, while the United States emerged as the world’s largest marketplace. Despite this, Sotheby’s remains optimistic about art demand in China, having seen a record number of bidders and buyers from the country this year.

As for Liu and Wang’s own museums, one of their Shanghai museums has remained closed this year, with traveling exhibitions filling the other museum instead of displaying their collection. Liu, known for his collection of Chinese antiquities, faces limitations due to China’s export restrictions on such artworks. However, his current sale focuses on modern and contemporary paintings, which can be more easily liquidated by Chinese collectors. Mainland China enforces a complete ban on the export of Chinese art produced before 1911, and there are also restrictions on artworks produced from 1911 until the Communist Party came into power in 1949.

The auction at Sotheby’s serves as a significant moment in the art market, attracting attention not only for the notable artworks being sold but also for the implications it may have on the Chinese art world and the confidence of collectors amidst the current economic challenges.