Liu Yiqian's winning bid at Christie's New York auction was $170.4 million dollars, the second-highest price ever paid at auction for a painting.   

The new proud owner: A Chinese billionaire who got his start as a taxi cab driver. The 51-year old Liu plans to display the Modigliani at the Long Museum Pudong in Shanghai, one of the two art museums he owns in the city. Yes, a former cab driver now has another masterpiece to hang in one of his several museums. 

While you were at home re-watching Homeland last night, @ChristiesInc sold half a billion dollars worth of art https://t.co/2eIYU1jRVs

— VANITY FAIR (@VanityFair) November 10, 2015

So how does someone in China go from cabbie to global art collector in the span of a few years?  

“He made his first big pot of money by buying low and selling high on a stock trade,” says Isaac Stone Fish, who writes about all things Asian at Foreign Policy magazine. “Liu actually likes to use the expression "when it’s stocks, buy low, when it’s art, buy high," and a lot of the art that he has bought has been a part of a business strategy that’s very eccentric but has also helped him stay in the good graces of the party in Shanghai.”

So Liu definitely qualifies as one of China’s nouveau riche, in fact he may well be the poster boy. Last year Liu bought some exquisite Chinese porcelain, paying over $36 million for a small Ming Dynasty cup adorned with a rooster and a hen tending to their chicks. He was photographed later drinking tea out of the antique "chicken cup" that once belonged to the Chinese emperor. How gauche! 

'Nu Couche' by Amedeo Modigliani. 

Photo: Christie's

The scene in the New York auction room at Christie’s on Monday was described as a "frantic 9-minute bidding war.” In the end, Liu scored the sensuous Modigliani nude, with the biggest bid in the art world since a Picassowent for $179 million in May. 

Some art critics wonder if the reclining nude might raise eyebrows or run afoul of conservative Chinese authorities. After all they’ve been known to shut down exhibits deemed "pornographic." 

But one of Liu’s museum spokespersons said: “Our shows are all very fresh and at the vanguard," adding that "The public does not live in the 70s and 80s. It's the 21st century now."

Stone Fish agrees, saying Chinese authorities are likely to give Modigliani a pass, “I think if it were a picture of Mao Tse-tung laying there nude, with millions of corpses under him, they might be a little more reserved, but for something like this, this kind of openness is something that the Chinese government doesn’t worry too much about.” 


From PRI's The World ©2015 Public Radio International