Billionaire Shanghai art collectors Wang Wei and Liu Yiqian have big plans for their museums

Long Museum in Pudong will show priceless relics from Mawangdui burial complex, Wang says on a recent visit to Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 06 October, 2015, 5:00pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 06 October, 2015, 5:15pm

The auction world loves Wang Wei and Liu Yiqian, her husband. They embody a breed of newly moneyed Chinese collectors with very broad taste and they have spent a good chunk of an estimated US$1.2 billion fortune (according to Forbes) on art since 1992. They even have their own museums to house their growing collections - two Long Museums in Shanghai and, by next spring, another one in Chongqing.

In April last year, Liu famously swiped his American Express card 24 times to pay for a HK$281 million, Ming dynasty ceramic "chicken cup" and then, with proprietorial swagger, sipped tea from it in front of a bemused world press. This March, the man who has become a billionaire by playing the notoriously volatile A-share stock market threw down another HK$348 million for an embroidered Tibetan tapestry, setting an international auction record for a Chinese work of art. This sort of high-profile bidding has made them celebrities of the auction market, a place where most collectors prefer anonymity.

Internationally, it is the couple's collection of antiques and modern and contemporary art that grabs the most interest. Back home, their sizeable hoard of Chinese communist revolutionary art is equally well-known and other local museums often ask to borrow from the collection.

The latest is the Hunan Provincial Museum, which also happens to own one of the country's most important cultural legacies - the relics from Mawangdui, a Han-dynasty burial site. When the museum reopens in 2016 after renovations, it plans to honour Hunan's local communist revolutionaries - Mao Zedong is the most famous - with a temporary exhibition that will feature many of Long Museum's sweeping landscapes with Mao in heroic stances and other paintings of ruddy-faced socialists in high spirits.

In return, it is lending Long Museum’s Pudong branch  more than 200 priceless pieces  from Mawangdui, including two silk paintings unearthed in the 2,000-year-old tomb  that rarely travel because of their delicate state. Wang, on a visit to Hong Kong last month to promote the exhibition, which opens on October 29, said the fact that the Hunan museum would trust Long Museum with the Mawangdui relics was an important acknowledgement of the status of China's private museums. In Shanghai alone, the two Long Museums are among a growing list of major institutions such as the Minsheng Art Museum, the Rockbund Art Museum and Yuz Museum that contain important private collections.

"The Long Museum is considered better run than many public museums and we offer a lot of educational and interactive experiences for visitors," said Wang. "We also invite local and overseas experts to curate professional shows and host academic panel discussions alongside exhibitions.

"Still, the Hunan museum would never have said yes if I just went up to them and asked to borrow the Mawangdui relics. It's only possible because they are really interested in our revolutionary art."

In return, it is lending Long Museum's Pudong branch more than 200 priceless pieces from Mawangdui, including two silk paintings unearthed in the 2,000-year-old tomb that rarely travel because of their delicate state.

Despite the downturn in the Chinese stock market, Wang said her husband businesses remained "stable" and the pair were going ahead with plans to open a third Long Museum in Chongqing in the spring of 2016. The city was the only direct-controlled municipality in China still very underserved by museums, she said.

"The Sichuan Fine Arts Institute has asked me if I'll show their students' works and of course I will. But we also want to bring things people in this relatively isolated city have not seen, such as Southeast Asian art. I am not going to put much traditional works of art there because Chongqing is really humid and even if we have dehumidifiers running all the time, the air may still not be dry enough for historic items," she said.

While some may question the long-term commitment of private museum owners - many are just there to dress up commercial property developments - Wang said her museums are permanent.

"You know why I call them Long Museums? Because I want them to last a long time. They cost a lot and there is hardly any government subsidy. But it's our way of paying back society so I just spend less on other things," she said.

The first museum in Pudong opened in 2012 and was the couple's own idea. "We'd been showing our revolutionary art collections in public museums and the exhibitions made such a splash we decided to open our own museum," she said. The next one - the West Bund branch of Long Museum that opened in 2014 - was a request from the Shanghai government to help turn that section of the Huangpu river into a "cultural corridor".

She believed she and her husband had already amassed a "solid" Chinese art collection and so they weren't planning to buy lots in this autumn's auction season in Hong Kong.

"With the economy being the way it is, this year we will look at our capital and measure our strength. We won't buy a lot, only things we really like," she said. Her plan is to learn more about contemporary western art next. "I may choose to collect them later. But now, just want to learn about them."

She was in town with a couple of Mawangdui experts to promote October's exhibition, in the hope that more overseas visitors would go and see the show in Shanghai. "These are really important relics and I hope people from Hong Kong and the rest of the world would come and see them. After all, it's so easy to get to Shanghai from here."

The Mawangdui silk paintings are T-shaped panels that were originally draped over coffins and still retain the intense colours they were painted with more than 2,000 years ago. These will be shown together with two other silk paintings from the earlier Warring States Period that also belong to the Hunan museum.

Their fragile state means that only early visitors to the exhibition will get to see them. After two weeks on display, they will be replaced by replicas, Wang said.