Christie’s x Liu Yiqian: “Art Collecting is the Art of Slow Living”
With the 10th anniversary of Christie’s Shanghai auction just around the corner, we sat down with Liu Yiqian, the founder of the Long Museum, which marked its 10th anniversary in 2022. The renowned collector recounted his personal collecting journey and the development of the largest and most prominent private museum in China.
A decade can turn trees into a thriving forest. In the past 10 years, the West Bund, once a desolate industrial zone in Shanghai, has transformed into a vibrant arts hub that stands proudly alongside Paris’s Rive Gauche and South Bank in London.
A trip to the West Bund is not complete without a visit to the Long Museum (West Bund) founded by the art collector couple Liu Yiqian and Wang Wei. One of the largest and finest private museums in China, it houses a stellar collection that spans across generations and countries, featuring masterpieces by Wang Xizhi, Emperor Song Huizong, Qiu Ying, Dong Qichang, Qi Baishi, Zhang Daqian, Paul Gauguin, René Magritte, Amedeo Modigliani, David Hockney and Gerhard Richter.
Every journey starts with small steps boldly taken. From founding the Long Museum (Pudong) in 2012, to developing a unique ecosystem of ‘one museum; two cities; three locations’ across Shanghai and Chongqing, every step taken by Liu and Wang has been steered by their passion and commitment to art.
A journey driven by curiosity
The beginning of Liu’s collecting journey can best be described as enthusiastic and adventurous.
During a business trip to Beijing in 1994, he learnt from the newspaper that an auction would be held in the Great Wall Hotel Beijing, and decided to visit. ‘I had only heard of Guo Moruo’s name, so I bought his calligraphic work for RMB70,000, and another painting by Li Keran.’ These ‘first bids’ might sound casual, but Liu values the works highly. ‘They are still displayed on my wall at home’, he says.
‘Curiosity is essential for social progress as well as art collecting.’ Recalling his first acquisition, the collector says, ‘Without much knowledge about the industry, I acquired my first piece of art three decades ago because I got curious. This mentality led me to start my art collection journey.’ He soon found himself a frequent participant in auctions, and over the years, the collector has also developed his own unique philosophy.
From actively joining the local sales, to setting his eye on timeless masterpieces at Christie’s and other international auction houses, every acquisition made by Liu made headlines and helped enrich his magnificent collection. In 2012, Liu and Wang were named two of the top 200 global art collectors by ARTnews. The couple were the first collectors from mainland China to make it onto the list, and they have appeared in it frequently ever since.
‘Art collecting is the art of slow living. Without an in-depth understanding, you cannot really appreciate the beauty of it.’ – Liu Yiqian
While many think that the works of art Liu owns are unimaginably valuable, he is a very sensible collector, believing that a great piece will never be overlooked, and that ‘value’ means more than just the figures.
Summarising his experience as a collector, Liu notes, ‘Art collecting is a long journey to be enjoyed slowly. Without an in-depth understanding, you cannot really appreciate the beauty of it.’
From the East to the West; from collecting to sharing
If a private collection manifests the collector’s strong desire to possess, the Long Museum represents the importance of sharing.
‘Collecting means gathering and hiding the works of art, so it’s a possessive act. However, a museum can satisfy my need to possess and to share my collection,’ noted Liu. This idea led to the opening of a private museum in 2012, and the couple have since continued to grow the collection with high-profile acquisitions.
Breaking the record of any Chinese work of art sold at auction, the thangka was much more than a valuable piece of art to him.
The enormous excitement of seeing the thangka in person for the first time was unforgettable. ‘Even after six hundred years, the thangka still looked so fresh and vivid,’ says Liu. ‘Standing in front of it, I felt the weight of keeping art alive across generations.’ Admiring the piece up close, he adds, the mystic aura was so intense that ‘I was overwhelmed by its imposing grandeur. I felt so small and insignificant in front of it.’
Liu considered the thangka a timeless piece of cultural heritage that needed to be preserved. Three years later, he kept the promise of sharing it with the public and showcased it as the highlight of the exhibition ‘The Yongle Emperor’s World-Imperial Thangka and Art Works from the Yongxuan Era [1403-1435] of the Ming Dynasty’ presented at the Long Museum (West Bund) in April 2017.
‘Art transcends borders and boundaries. In addition to exhibits that reflect traditional Chinese culture, the Long Museum also needs to build a Western art collection. It’s a complementary relationship.’ – Liu Yiqian
Western art is also an integral category for the Long Museum, which is committed to developing a diverse collection spanning both East and West. The approach of the museum reflects the sensibility of this avid collector of classical Chinese paintings, who says that ‘art transcends borders and boundaries. In addition to exhibits that reflect traditional Chinese culture, the Long Museum also needs to build a Western art collection. It’s a complementary relationship.’
Therefore, a year later, Liu acquired Amedeo Modigliani’s Nu couché (Reclining Nude) for US$170 million at Christie’s in New York, breaking the world-record price for a work by the artist. After winning the bid, he posted on WeChat and said, ‘With the consent of the Director [Wang Wei], the Long Museum now ushers in a new era of collecting.’
After watching a movie about the artist, Liu was inspired by the short yet glorious life of Modigliani, a man known for his talent and personality. Accompanied by the Christie’s team, he paid tribute to the artist at his grave in Europe with flowers and champagne. In an interview, Liu said, ‘Every museum would want a Modigliani masterpiece. I take pride in the fact that people in China can now admire his great work in a local museum.’
Guided by this sense of eclecticism, over the last 10 years the museum has presented nearly 200 major exhibitions featuring important pieces from across the two cultures, drawing in about 30 million visitors. ‘We did not have a clear direction when we founded the museum,’ says Liu. ‘We only tried to be approachable and pragmatic. But the lack of direction or system has somehow evolved into a special system we see today.’
The satisfaction that goes beyond wealth
With Wang overseeing the operations of the museum, Liu, the self-proclaimed ‘assistant to the director’, enjoys seeing the exhibitions and observing the visitors. He once noticed a kid sitting on the floor of a gallery and copying a painting. ‘I took a seat behind the child and observed for over 10 minutes,’ he recalls. ‘I felt a great sense of joy. Such a rewarding experience cannot be bought with money or measured with wealth.’
One notable change he has observed during the past decade is the growing number of younger visitors, which he regards as another achievement: ‘This is the change brought by time. It is very satisfying. Opening a museum needs a big collection, yet the success of it will hinge on the audiences.’
‘The unrivalled influence Christie’s now enjoys in the global art market is built upon its persistence and active advocacy. During the last decade, it has been actively introducing local collectors and audiences to traditional Chinese art categories, bringing more people, including me, closer to Western artists.’ – Liu Yiqian
Liu has also witnessed the rapidly evolving art scene in Shanghai over the years. With the arrival of more international institutions, led by Christie’s, the opening of ART021 and West Bund Art & Design, and the growing line-up of art museums and international exhibitions, Shanghai now boasts a more vibrant and robust art ecosystem.
Commenting on the 10th anniversary of Christie’s Shanghai, the revered collector says, ‘The unrivalled influence Christie’s now enjoys in the global art market is built upon its persistence and active advocacy. During the last decade, it has been actively introducing local collectors and audiences to traditional Chinese art categories, bringing more people, including me, closer to Western artists.’
Ushering in a new decade, Liu expects himself to be ‘extremely busy’, noting that ‘we are scheduling exhibitions for 2029 now. During the last decade, the museum has never been empty, except for when exhibitions were being installed or removed.’
However, he always sticks to the principal of ‘being pragmatic’.
‘I find it truly worthwhile to run a museum that has ignited people’s interest in art over the last decade,’ he says. ‘I am very pleased that I have been able to engage audiences in an approachable and pragmatic manner.’
Christie’s 10th Shanghai Auction Anniversary
In September 2013, Christie’s became the first international auction house to hold auctions independently in mainland China when we struck the gavel for the first time in Shanghai. Christie’s is honoured to have witnessed the flourishing and dynamic development of the art market in mainland China with collectors over the past 10 years.
To celebrate our 10th Shanghai Auction Anniversary this year, we will present a series of art and cultural activities, alongside videos and feature articles. It has been a pioneering decade of growth – from Christie’s inaugural Shanghai sale in 2013, which presented the first artwork by Pablo Picasso at auction in mainland China; expanding to a brand-new art space at Shanghai’s iconic BUND ONE; establishing the new Shanghai-London joint auction model; to the first auction in mainland China of a Western masterpiece created pre-1949. Looking ahead, we are excited to continue empowering collectors throughout their journey with Christie’s, and to further drive the innovation and development of mainland China’s auction market. We immensely look forward to the next decade and beyond!