Chinese Billionaire Liu’s Auction Flops at Sotheby’s Fall Sale

The $70 million total for art may still represent a single-owner record in Asia, but a full quarter of the lots failed to sell.

(Bloomberg) — Prominent Chinese billionaire Liu Yiqian sold only 29 of 39 artworks in a Hong Kong auction with results far behind estimated values, a sign of a softening in the Chinese art market. 

Sotheby’s conducted the much-hyped sale of modern and contemporary works from prominent Western and Asian artists over approximately two hours at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center on Thursday. The grand total, including the buyer’s premium and overhead premium was HK$544.5 million ($69.5 million); initial estimates pegged auction totals between HK$745 million and HK$1.06 billion.

The star lot proved the biggest disappointment: Amedeo Modigliani’s Paulette Jourdain painting, which sold for $34.8 million. No public estimate was provided prior to the sale but Liu had bought the work, which some believe to be Modigliani’s last portrait painted, for $42.8 million in 2015—down more than 18% in eight years. 

Among the top 10 lots, four missed estimates and only one exceeded them. Most artworks went to Asian collectors.

The sale comes as private museums in China have downsized or shut amidst a troubled economy. Independent, nonprofit art organization OCAT closed its chapters in several cities including Shanghai in March. The Guangdong Times Museum—a privately funded nonprofit—closed last October after more than 20 years of running. Other private museums, such as Shanghai’s landmark Yuz Museum, were forced to relocate to smaller spaces when the government-owned landlord did not renew its lease. 

Liu is the chairman of Sunline Group Co. Ltd., a Chinese conglomerate that invests in various sectors including finance, pharmaceutical and real estate industries. Liu and his wife, Wang Wei, are also the owners of the private Long Museum with two outposts in Shanghai and one in Chongqing.

“Despite the somewhat softer markets due to the post Covid economic environment in China, the best works are still sought after albeit with a natural adjustment in pricing,” said Philip Hoffman, founder and chief executive of the Fine Art Group, highlighting that there were three bidders for the Modigliani work. The $70 million haul still represents the highest total for any single-owner sale in Asia, despite the overall performance.

“For great material that has been in major collections for a period of time we still expect strong bidding—there is plenty of interest at all levels but higher interest rates have affected some parts of the art market,” said Hoffman.

Among other results, Matthew Wong’s The Golden Age went for HK$12.6 million, under its HK$14 million low estimate. Alex Katz’s On Time sold for HK$11.3 million; it had been estimated for HK$12 million to HK$18 million. 

René Magritte’s Le miroir universel yielded HK$77.6 million, compared with its estimate of between HK$70 million to HK$95 million. Lot 8539, Sea of Flowers No.1 by Wang Xingwei, was withdrawn prior to the sale with no reason given by Sotheby’s.

“Whatever the asset, it’s common knowledge that one doesn’t sell when the market is low,’’ said Nixi Cura, research fellow at the University of Glasgow and former program director at Christie’s Education London, prior to the auction.  “The sale makes people curious about what is happening on the macro economy level in China, but also at the micro level, on Liu’s companies and museums.’’

The world’s second-largest economy is trying to regain traction amid challenges from weak consumer and business confidence along with the ongoing property crisis. Profit of Hubei Biocause Group, one of Sunlife’s main listed units, has plunged since the pandemic. It reported 275.9 million yuan ($41 million) for net income last year, only 17% of its 2019 level. Face recognition tech firm  Couldwalk Technology Co., another Sunlife investment, is sanctioned by the US.

Attempts to reach Liu through the Long Museum and Sotheby’s were unsuccessful. 

Prior to the sale, the auction house issued a generic media statement: “Wang Wei and Liu Yiqian feel like it is now time to offer a small fraction of their holdings to collectors who will continue to treasure them, just as they have, in order to fund further acquisitions and support various programs at their Long Museum,’’ said Sotheby’s Asia Chairman Nicolas Chow.

In response to queries about reports that Liu will auction about 50 more pieces in New York in the future, Sotheby’s demured, stating that only a handful of significant works will be offered as part of the marquee season series in London and New York.

Liu, a former taxi driver burst onto the art scene more than a decade ago when he embarked on a buying spree, bidding up artworks to then-shocking levels. In 2015, he spent $170 million on a Modigliani nude, setting a record for the Italian artist at auction at the time. He has a fortune of at least $1.5 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. 

The 59-year-old, who made his fortune from China’s nascent stock trading of the 1980s and ’90s, is also known for his colorful antics that set him apart from the typical, low-profile art collector. 

In the so-called “Chicken Cup” incident that made international headlines, Liu bought a Ming dynasty ceramic bowl for $36 million and drank tea from it. He also used his American Express Centurion card to pay the $45 million bill for a 15th century Tibetan embroidered silk thangka, then cashed in some of his new horde of points for free travel after.

–With assistance from James Tarmy.

More stories like this are available on

©2023 Bloomberg L.P.