Black AMEX Bags Modigliani

SHANGHAI -- In what may be the largest single credit card transaction ever, Chinese collector, Liu Yiqian, pulled out his Black AMEX last week to pay for Modigliani's Nu Couché.

Bidding via telephone through a Christie's VP, he beat out five opponents by offering $170.4 million including fees, the second-highest price ever paid for an artwork at auction.

Before last week, Mr. Liu and his wife Ms. Wang Wei, both 52, had already made a name for themselves in China’s art circles, he in particular as the most flamboyant of the country’s small group of major collectors.

Art collectors of Art Kabinett social media network know Mr Lui as the brash former taxi driver turned billionaire, who provoked an uproar when he bought a tiny Ming dynasty porcelain cup for $36.3 million at a Sotheby’s auction — and proceeded to be photographed, shown here, drinking tea from the antique vessel.

Ms. Wang is known as the driving force and general director behind the couple’s Long Museum, which has two branches in Shanghai. Over more than 20 years, the two have amassed an extensive collection of mostly traditional and contemporary Chinese art, much of it on display in the museums.

They have 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.

Rags to Riches

Mr. Liu’s rise is a classic rags-to-riches tale of post-Mao China.

Growing up in a working-class family in Shanghai in the 1960s and ’70s, he said, he knew early on that he wanted to go into business. After dropping out of middle school, he began selling leather handbags, then saved enough money to buy a taxi.

In 1983, he was still eking out a living as a small-time businessman when he met Ms. Wang, who was working as a typist at Shanghai Normal University.

By the late 1980s, with China’s economic liberalization in full swing, Mr. Liu’s fortunes turned as a series of stock market investments he had made began to take off.

Today, he is chairman of the Sunline Group, a holding company based in Shanghai whose interests include chemicals, pharmaceuticals, real estate development and a financial unit.

In addition to owning a stake in a pharmaceutical company, he was also an early investor in Beijing Council International Auction, an auction company in the Chinese capital started by one of Ms. Wang’s friends. According to Forbes, his assets in 2015 totaled $1.22 billion.

China’s art market was still in its nascent stages when Mr. Liu and Ms. Wang began going to auctions and buying art in the early 1990s. Over the years, what started as a hobby became an obsession.

While Mr. Liu preferred collecting traditional Chinese artworks and objects, Ms. Wang focused on acquiring art from the Cultural Revolution era and, later, contemporary Chinese art and art from throughout Asia. They began to collect Western artists as well, and their holdings now include work from Jeff Koons’s mirror-polished sculpture series.

Long Museum Pudong

Several years ago, Ms. Wang, a self-proclaimed “art fanatic,” came up with the idea of opening a museum so they could show their collection to the public. But first, she needed to persuade Mr. Liu.

So in 2012, Mr. Liu and Ms. Wang opened the Long Museum Pudong, one of many private museums that have begun in Shanghai in recent years as the local government tries to transform the city into an international cultural capital.

In 2014, they opened a second branch, the Long Museum West Bund, part of a government-sponsored project to develop a waterfront cultural corridor in Shanghai that includes private museums, a large entertainment complex, and soon, the headquarters for DreamWorks’ new Chinese joint venture animation studio.

Exhibitions range from a large show of revolutionary art to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II to a performance-art exhibition curated by Klaus Biesenbach of MoMA and Hans Ulrich Obrist of the Serpentine Gallery in London.

Although they received a discount from the government for the land in the West Bund area, Ms. Wang said, almost all of the operation costs — about $9.5 million for both museums this year, she estimated — are undertaken by her and her husband.

AMEX Miles

There is another, more personal, benefit to the Modigliani acquisition: airfare.

Ms. Wang confirmed that, as in the past, she and Mr. Liu used their American Express Centurion card to pay for the Modigliani. That way, with the cardholder’s points they accrue, their whole family — the couple, their four children and two grandchildren — can continue flying for free.

“We are on a one-year payment plan for the painting,” Ms. Wang said. “If we had to pay cash upfront, that would be a little difficult for us. I mean, who has the money for that?”

Today's homepage Featured Art Video recaps last week's exciting auction action.