China's billionaires: Liu Yiqian, China's biggest art collector

By Nick Rosen
Author and filmmaker

  • Published

From the younger generation of super-rich, Liu Yiqian is China's biggest art collector.

Chinese media have dubbed him "the eccentric Mr Liu" because he wears T-shirts to work and shaves only occasionally, but his investment style suggests he is highly savvy.

As my crew fussed around his office preparing for the interview, Liu appeared unfazed, intently studying a huge screen of stock prices, a cigarette in one hand, and a mug of tea by his side.

Born in 1963 into an ordinary working class family in Shanghai, Liu left school at 14 to help his mother with her handbag business.

Initially, he made the bags which she sold from a stand on the street. But Liu worked out a way of making the bags cheaper than the other street vendors. By undercutting them he outsold them.

It was the beginning of the 1980s, and the earliest roots of China's move to capitalism were being put in place. Small but significant fortunes were being made.

At the time there was a phrase in Shanghai: "becoming a 10,000 yuan person." The average wage was 300 yuan per year at that time and the people earning 10,000 in Shanghai were all street traders like Liu.

He became a 10,000 yuan person aged 17. But although his fortune was on the rise, he and his family were still living hand to mouth.

Stock trading

Liu's big break came when he was 27, and his on-the-job schooling finally proved useful. He was visiting the Shenzhen economic zone to buy materials for bags when he met a former classmate, who told him about a new thing called stock trading.

He bought his first holding in a company that operated very near his bag stall, so he knew all about them.

Image caption,
Liu Yiqian and wife Wang Wei plan to display their collection at a purpose-built museum in Shanghai

The shares cost 100 yuan and within a year their value increased to 10,000 yuan. He eventually sold his stake for more than two million yuan.

His wealth is based on that one transaction. Liu invested the profit in companies across a wide range of industries, all of which grew sharply. His holdings still are very diversified.

Art collecting

Liu's art collecting is done in conjunction with his wife, Wang Wei. She acts as curator and concentrates on Chinese art.

When 60 of their Chinese paintings and calligraphy works dating back to the Song dynasty were shown at Beijing's Poly Art Museum in December 2010, they were insured for a reported ten billion yuan (£0.94bn; $1.5bn).

Highlights of the collection included two Song Dynasty (960-1279) pieces and another five from the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368).

There was an ancient brush painting featuring rare birds, believed to be the only existing hand-drawn painting by Emperor Huizong of the Song Dynasty.

During the Cultural Revolution many ancient Chinese artworks were destroyed, making the remaining ones exceedingly rare and valuable.

In October 2010, Mr Liu paid about $11m for a Qing Dynasty imperial throne with carved dragons at Sotheby's Hong Kong.

Liu and his wife plan to build their own museum in Shanghai, a massive venue to display their complete collection.