Behind The Long Journey: The Liu Yiqian and Wang Wei Collection

Behind The Long Journey: The Liu Yiqian and Wang Wei Collection

The story underlying the finest private collection of Chinese art, and modern and contemporary art.
The story underlying the finest private collection of Chinese art, and modern and contemporary art.

T here are very few collecting couples in the art world that have risen as prolifically in the past decade as Liu Yiqian and Wang Wei. The Chinese husband-and-wife duo have garnered no shortage of media headlines – be that for the memorable purchase of a Ming dynasty porcelain ‘chicken cup’ or acquiring museum-class modern Western art. Yet what underlies the public personas is the propensity for the vision to amass one of the finest private collections of Chinese art and antiquities, modern and contemporary art.

Liu Yiqian and Wang Wei

The collection of Liu Yiqian and Wang Wei extends to the thousands – reflecting a collecting journey of more than 30 years exploring art of all mediums, genres, periods and geographies with irrepressible curiosity. “To me, art collecting is primarily a process of learning about art. First you must be fond of the art. Then you can have an understanding of it,” said Liu in a 2013 interview with The New York Times. While Liu is passionate about Chinese art, from ceramics and jades, to furniture, paintings and calligraphies, Wang embraces modern and contemporary art from established and rising names. A foremost collector of Chinese revolutionary art, Wang said of her interest, “I think this is part of China’s history […]. It’s in the memory of many people like me.”

“Where other newly minted multimillionaires leaned toward more mundane forms of conspicuous consumption, the pair appear to be driven by a genuine passion for art,” observed the Financial Times in 2016. In the same interview, Wang shared the story of their modest upbringing. Wang’s father was a metal worker, her mother was an accountant. After leaving school, Wang worked as a typist at a university, and the pair met in their 20s after Liu came across a photograph of her at the home of a mutual friend.

Described by his wife as a perennial entrepreneur, Liu left school at 16 and saved up to buy his own taxi. From humble beginnings operating a taxi and a handbag business to running a grocery store, behind which the couple lived with their four children and one set of parents, Liu’s relentless hardworking spirit eventually led him to make his fortune through trading in the Chinese stock market. Thereafter, amid China’s rise of self-made millionaires and vast economic growth of the last few decades, the couple fuelled their passion for art, taking it to new grounds.

Nicolas Chow, Chairman, Asia and Chairman and Worldwide Head of Asian Art, presenting the porcelain 'chicken cup' in 2014.
Described as 'virtually unobtainable', the extremely rare Northern Song Dynasty ru guanyao brush washer

“I have had a fascination with things that are beautiful and different since I was a boy,” said Liu in an interview with Orientations in 2010. “I just enjoy everything about the process of acquiring a piece of art and the satisfaction of being able to possess beautiful, rare and sought-after objects.” His first auction purchase, a Guo Morou calligraphy, still hangs with pride at home today. Other prized acquisitions greatly treasured by Liu include the magnificent Five Drunken Princes Returning on Horseback by Yuan dynasty painter Wen Renfa, which achieved a new auction record at the time as the second most expensive artwork sold by Sotheby’s. Liu is no stranger to spending eye-popping sums for Chinese art, or setting landmark auction records for that matter. An extraordinarily rare Ru guanyao brush washer, described by Sotheby’s as ‘virtually unobtainable,’ and a Qing dynasty Imperial carved zitan ‘dragon’ throne are just two among many memorable pieces in the collection. On the contrary to mainstream media claims, these purchases are not momentary impulses but reflect an ambitious pursuit for knowledge and a collection built on artistic excellence. “No matter how much I study, I will never know more than an expert […]. I tend to buy with my ears, rather than my eyes. I listen to what experts have to say, and observe what goes on in the auction room,” explained Liu.

Great art is priceless. The only limit is how much the buyer is willing to pay.
Liu Yiqian

Helmed by Wang, the modern and contemporary art holdings in the collection comprises a star-studded roster that leaves no part of 20th and 21st century art history untouched. Spanning continents and artistic movements around the world, the collection includes coveted works by artists such as Mark Rothko, René Magritte, Yoshitomo Nara, Kazuo Shiraga, Léonard Tsuguharu Foujita, Georgette Chen, Gerhard Richter, Marlene Dumas, David Hockney, Yayoi Kusama, Shirazeh Houshiary, and Lee Ufan, just to name a sprinkling. Chinese artists are given its own accolade. In addition to revolutionary art are masterpieces by the likes of Xu Beihong, Zao Wou-Ki, Sanyu, Pan Yuliang, Chen Yifei, Zhang Enli, and Ai Xuan, among many represented in the collection. Global in scope, diverse in style, together with Liu’s exquisite acquisitions of traditional Chinese art and antiquities, it is an encyclopaedic collection that knows no bounds.

David Hockney, A Picture of a Lion, 2017
We hope to push beyond the boundaries of traditional art, to provide the public with a global art education while also strengthening local cultural roots.
Liu Liqian and Wang Wei

René Magritte, Le miroir universel, 1938-39

Beyond the private collection, the couple’s fervour for art extended to a vision to build a museum that would stand at the forefront of Asia’s thriving landscape. In just 10 years since it first opened in Shanghai in 2012, Long Museum has grown to be nothing short of a trailblazing institution, hosting more than 200 exhibitions to date. Now with three locations, all overseen by Wang, Long Museum is celebrated as one of the most significant private museums operating in China today. “I am committed to promoting cultural exchange between China and the West, introducing distinguished artists from abroad to inspire viewers and the public,” said Wang in 2017 of their aspiration for the museum. “I hope to break through beyond traditional art, so we can learn about the global artistic milieu today.”

Long Museum, Shanghai. Image courtesy of Long Museum.

Their dedication to a global artistic education is demonstrated by some of the pioneering international exhibitions the museum has hosted over the years such as Jame Turrell's "Immersive Light" in 2017, the American artist's first retrospective in China, and in 2018, Louise Bourgeois's "The Eternal Thread", the most comprehensive museum exhibition in China of the world renowned French-American artist. Other memorable standouts include Chiharu Shiota’s “The Soul Trembles” and Mark Bradford’s “Los Angeles”, both of which were the artists’ largest institutional shows in China to date. In 2015, Long Museum held the major live-art exhibition “15 Rooms”. Featuring innovative performative works by artists from all over the world, and co-curated by Klaus Bisenbach and Hans Ulrich Obrist, the exhibition is just one of many over the years that has reflected the couple’s vision.

Installation view, Louise Bourgeois: The Eternal Thread, Long Museum West Bund, 2018-19. Image courtesy of Long Museum.

Contemporary Western art aside, Long Museum has also played a pivotal role mounting influential exhibitions of Chinese art, from contemporary through to the time of Chinese literati, paving the way in the promotion of academic and public outreach advancing the education of art in the region. More recent exhibitions include "Pioneering: Chinese Artists Abroad in France and Chinese Modern Art (1911-1949)" in 2019, "Southern Zhang and Northern Qi: Zhang Daqian and Qi Baishi Special Exhibition" in 2022, and "Emperor and Literati: Painting and Calligraphy from Ming Dynasty" just this year.

Installation view, Southern Zhang and Northern Qi: Zhang Daqian and Qi Baishi Special Exhibition, Long Museum West Bund, 2022. Image courtesy of Long Museum.

“Artworks become nothing but objects if placed in a storage room,” Wang once said. The collection of Liu Yiqian and Wang Wei is a story of two people’s quest for cultural learning and desire to share their love of art traversing more than three decades, a journey that continues to evolve today. “Even if we have enough food, we will be empty inside if we don’t have spiritual fulfilment.”

Modern Art | Asia

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