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The Story Behind the Taxi Driver-Turned-Billionaire Who Paid $170.4M USD for a Modigliani Painting

“We have bought their buildings, we have bought their companies, and now we are going to buy their art.”

With the $170.4 million USD sale of Amedeo Modigliani’s Nu Couché last week in the second highest amount ever paid for a painting at auction, its buyer and Chinese billionaire, Liu Yiqian, shot into the Western public consciousness with his grand financial gesture. The New York Times delved into this eccentric businessman and one of China’s most notorious art collectors, who made headlines one year ago for spending $36.3 million USD on a Ming dynasty porcelain cup at a Sotheby’s auction, and then photographed himself drinking tea out of it.

Born in a working class family in Shanghai, Liu was variously a handbag salesman and a taxi driver, before meeting then-typist and future wife Wang Wei. Together and through a number of shrewd investments, the couple are now the owners of the Sunline Group holding company and a $1.22 billion USD fortune, which they have put to use in accruing a collection of Chinese, then Asian, and finally Western art that includes the likes of Jeff Koons. Now, as part of their mission to create a Chinese art museum to rival the likes of New York’s MoMA and Guggenheim Museum, they are investing their fortune in developing the Long Museum into a world-class art venue. Read an excerpt below, and find the full article here.

Days after their latest blockbuster purchase, Mr. Liu and Ms. Wang were back at it, flying to Beijing to attend the fall sales of a top auction house, China Guardian. They said their goal was to transform the Long Museum into a world-class destination that could compete with the likes of the Museum of Modern Art and the Guggenheim Museum in New York. And nothing, Mr. Liu said, says world class quite like a Modigliani nude.

“Every museum dreams of having a Modigliani nude,” Mr. Liu said. “Now, a Chinese museum has a globally recognized masterpiece, and my fellow countrymen no longer have to leave the country to see a Western masterpiece. I feel very proud about that.” He added, “The message to the West is clear: We have bought their buildings, we have bought their companies, and now we are going to buy their art.”

With his acquisition of the nude, a 1917-18 canvas known as “Nu Couché,” that message certainly seems to have gotten across. “This purchase was a proclamation of his arrival,” said Thomas Galbraith, managing director of auctions at Paddle8, an online auction house. “Anyone in the art world who didn’t know his name knows it now.”

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