The Billionaire Founders of China’s Long Museum Plan to Sell Off an Estimated $150 Million Worth of Art at Sotheby’s This Fall

It is not yet clear what has spurred the Long Museum's founder Liu Yiqian and his wife Wang Wei to sell off a part of their collection.

Liu Yiquian and Wang Wei. Courtesy the Long Museum.

A decade ago, Liu Yiqian, a Chinese taxi driver-turned-billionaire, began turning heads in the art market by paying tens of millions of dollars for Chinese art with his credit card. As the Long Museum in Shanghai, which he co-founded with his wife Wang Wei, transformed into China’s leading private institution, the power couple became market makers at the highest level in Western art as well. In 2015, the two acquired Amedeo Modigliani’s Nu couché (Reclining Nude) for a record $170.4 million at a Christie’s sale in New York.

Now the couple is poised to send shock waves through the art market again—but this time as major sellers.

Liu and Wang asked Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips to pitch for a group of Western modern, postwar, and contemporary art valued at about $150 million (in excess of HK$1 billion), according to people familiar with their plans. Sotheby’s won the bid, the people said.

The consignment arrives just as the art market braces for a slowdown. Global auctions at Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Phillips fell 22.7 percent in the first six months of 2023 compared to the same period last year, according to Artnet Price Database. Meanwhile, the Chinese economy is struggling to recover from the prolonged Covid lockdown, the country’s property market is in shambles, and its currency fell to the lowest against the U.S. dollar in 16 years.  

Sotheby’s said it will offer around 50 works, including those by Modigliani, Zao Wou-ki, René Magritte, David Hockney, Matthew Wong, and Yayoi Kusama. The auction house didn’t specify what works will be included.

Many details remain unclear, including whether the sale will feature the couple’s impressive collection of Chinese painting and antiques. The museum is not closing its doors, sources told Artnet News.

“Sotheby’s is honored to be bringing to its Hong Kong sale rooms a truly outstanding group of works from the legendary collection of Liu Yiqian and Wang Wei—two of the greatest collectors of our time,” Sotheby’s said in a statement on Tuesday in response to Artnet News‘s request for comments. The house’s Hong Kong sales usually take place in October. The spokesperson added that “proceeds from the forthcoming sales [are] destined to further key initiatives at the Long Museum, while also funding future acquisitions and the continued fostering of cultural dialogues between different artists, geographies and generations.”

The Long Museum did not respond to Artnet News‘s request for comment by publication time.

Amedeo Modigliani, Nu couché, 1917–18. Courtesy Christie's New York.

Amedeo Modigliani, Nu couché, 1917–18. Courtesy of Christie’s New York.

Liu built his fortune investing in the stock market as China’s economy began to take off in the early 1990s. The chairman of Shanghai-based investment company Sunline Group, which has a portfolio ranging from pharmaceuticals, financial services, and properties, ventured into art collecting and bid at auction for the first time in 1994 in Beijing, acquiring a Chinese calligraphy work by Guo Moruo and a Chinese painting by Li Keran.

Together with his wife Wang, the couple became the best-known Chinese collectors in the West with high-profile purchases at auction that included the 500-year-old Ming dynasty Meiyintang “chicken cup” that fetched $36.6 million (including fees) at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in 2014, setting a new record. After the sale, Liu was photographed drinking from the cup while swiping his American Express card 24 times to pay for his winning bid.

At the time, his flamboyant behavior drew criticism, but he said in his defence that he needed to pull such stunts to generate publicity for his collection.

“I have a museum opening to the public. If I don’t tell people I have acquired these works, then no one would know, and no one will come to my museum to see them,” Liu said in an interview with the South China Morning Post in 2015. He also took pride in placing world class artworks in his museum in China.

Liu Yiqian drinks from his $36.3 million Meiyintang chicken cup. Photo: courtesy Sotheby's.

Liu Yiqian drinks from his $36.3 million Meiyintang chicken cup. Photo: courtesy Sotheby’s.

In the Hurun China Rich List 2022, Liu and his family were ranked at 131st with an estimated accumulated wealth of 37 billion yuan ($5 billion), up 33 places from the previous year. His wealth has reportedly grown to 38 billion yuan ($5.2 billion) according to Hurun Global Rich List 2023, which ranked him at 513rd.

But the couple has been keeping a relatively low profile in recent years and their art purchases have slowed down, according to people familiar with their activity.

That coincides with China’s economic troubles. While major economies are tackling inflation by raising interest rates, China’s central bank, People’s Bank of China, announced on Monday that it has lowered its one-year loan prime rate, a key interest rate in the country, for the second time in three months, from 3.55 percent to 3.45 percent, according to the BBC.

China’s property market has also been hit with an unprecedented crisis. Embattled property giant Evergrande, which was revealed to be the world’s most indebted real estate developer (it accumulated more than $300 billion debts), filed for U.S. bankruptcy protection in New York last Thursday, August 17. Country Garden, once China’s largest property developer, is suffering from a cash crunch and is said to be removed from Hong Kong’s Hang Seng Index. Reuters reported property developers accounting for 40 percent of home sales in the country have defaulted since mid-2021 when the sector’s debt crisis began to deepen.

The artworks that Liu and Wang asked the three auction houses to evaluate included Plunge, a 1992 painting by Kerry James Marshall, which the collectors bought for $2.2 million at Christie’s in 2016. It was the auction record for the African American artist at the time.

Another work was Jenny Saville’s large-scale painting Shift (1996-1998), which sold for 6.8 million pounds (about $9 million at the time), also in 2016, and a record for the British painter at the time.

It doesn’t appear that Modigliani’s Nu couché is going to be part of the Long Museum batch headed for auction this fall. But another painting by the Italian modernist has been part of the pitch by auction houses: Paulette Jourdain (1919), which fetched $42.8 million as part of A. Alfred Taubman’s auction at Sotheby’s in 2015.

Some of these works have been featured in the Long Museum’s recent two-part exhibition celebrating its 10th anniversary.

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