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China's 'share king' makes a fine art of collecting

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 May, 2011, 12:00am
 

Shanghai billionaire Liu Yiqian's decision to begin collecting art 18 years ago paid off in a big way last weekend when the sale at auction of one of the best items in his collection netted a profit of more than 300 million yuan (HK$359 million).

A painting with a couplet by Chinese artist Qi Baishi, which Liu bought separately in 2005 and last year, set a record for modern art and calligraphy on the mainland when it sold for 425.5 million yuan (HK$508.5 million), including commission.

It was the second-highest price fetched by an artwork on the mainland. But Liu said his first success in an art auction was simply by chance. He only decided to put the painting and couplet up for auction after being persuaded by China Guardian auction house general manager Dong Guoqiang.

'I simply tried at random,' he said after the record sale. 'I just wanted to test my taste for collecting by putting them up for sale, and the result again confirmed my decision to be involved in collecting.'

He bought the painting at auction for less than six million yuan in 2005 when the art market was in the doldrums. Five years later, he bought the couplet, originally part of the same work, at another auction for more than 10 million yuan. The price the combined work fetched last Sunday means its value rose nearly 2,000 per cent in six years.

Liu, 48, had already built a reputation as a successful businessman before last weekend's massive windfall. Dubbed the 'king of corporation shares', he set up his own investment company, Xin Liyi, in 2000. In 2009, he was No196 on the Forbes list of China's 400 richest people. This year's Hurun Shanghai Wealth Report ranked him No11, with assets of about 10 billion yuan.

He has humble beginnings. A middle-school dropout, Liu worked in his family's shoe business for 10 years. He then ran a taxi firm before making money from the stock market as the mainland began to open up its financial markets in the 1990s.

He began collecting art in 1993 and says he can't remember how he stumbled into it. But he said he liked to think of himself as a collector rather than an investor back then.

In past auctions, Liu has made headlines for buying high-priced works. He says he has spent more than 2 billion yuan on artworks since 2009. His wife Wang Wei is another prominent collector of modern Chinese art.

Liu said his collection ranged from porcelain to jade, furniture and oil paintings and he had no idea how many items he owned.

'When buying artworks, you shouldn't really look at how much profit you can make,' Liu said. 'The artworks have more artistic value than their actual price.'

And his strategy for selecting art? 'Sometimes I simply guessed' he said.

Liu said he would remain active in the art market and believed that investment prospects were good because of the huge amount of liquidity on the mainland with nowhere to go.

'The upbeat trend will remain... [while] the stock market is in recession and property market is suffering from policies restricting purchases.'

On Tuesday, he spent 81.65 million yuan on Chen Yifei's oil painting Wind of Mountain Village, part of his Tibetan series, setting a record for a Chinese oil painting, according to China Guardian. It was the second time the work had set a world record. In 1994, it sold for 2.86 million yuan.

Liu said his successful debut as a seller was a coincidence but his timing was good. China ranked first in global art sales last year, ahead of the United States and Britain, according to Artprice.com.

'A couple of cases of my sales can't reflect the full picture. I hope it won't affect other collectors,' Liu said. 'It's better to invest in artwork as if you are collecting.

'Collecting art has been the great joy of my life.'

308m

The amount, in yuan, that Liu spent to buy Peace Placard by Wang Xizhi

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