With two museums already in his empire, tycoon Liu Yiqian (劉益謙) is a would-be Chinese Getty or Guggenheim, but a row over the authenticity of a scroll that cost him millions of US dollars threatens his artistic legacy.
The work, with nine Chinese characters in black ink reading: “Su Shi [蘇軾] respectfully bids farewell to Gong Fu [功甫], gentleman court consultant,” is the star exhibit at Liu’s newly opened Long Museum West Bund in Shanghai.
The calligraphy is a mere 28cm by 10cm, but Liu paid US$8.2 million to secure it at a Sotheby’s auction in New York in September last year.
A taxi driver turned financier who is now one of the country’s wealthiest people, Lin is among the new Chinese super-rich scouring the globe for artwork, snapping up objects and driving up prices, some even building their own museums to house their collections.
“Like the Gettys and the Guggenheims and the Whitneys ... there’s a long history of museums in the West and maybe now in China of collectors wanting to make a name for themselves and make a mark on history,” said Clare Jacobson, author of New Museums in China.
Yet the grand opening has been upset by a public argument with a renowned trio of experts from the state-backed Shanghai Museum who derided the work as a fake.
In the shadowy world of money and art, there are suggestions China’s established official museums resent competition from private ones.
There are also rumors, denied in the media, that the scroll once passed through the hands of the Shanghai Museum.
Attributed to poet Su Shi, one of the recognized four great calligraphers of the Song Dynasty of 960 to 1279, the scroll is known as the Gong Fu Tie after the official named in it.
However, Shanghai Museum researchers Shan Guolin (單國霖), Zhong Yinlan (鍾銀蘭) and Ling Lizhong (凌利中) launched an unusual attack after the purchase, saying it was a much later copy.
“Traditional visual identification is already enough to make the judgement that Sotheby’s Gong Fu Tie is a counterfeit version,” they said in one article.
Some brushstrokes appeared “awkward” and unlike the writer’s style, they have said.
Liu stands behind the scroll’s authenticity, as does Sotheby’s, which along with rival Christie’s has been courting Asian buyers, with China now among the largest art markets in the world.
“This is a good thing, debate on the authenticity of Gong Fu Tie helps restore historical truth,” Liu told state media, though he added the controversy had left him physically and mentally exhausted.
Liu declined an interview, citing unhappiness with a New York Times series last year on China’s art market, which described it as riddled with fakes and inflated prices and called him a “new collector.”
Liu, 50, made his first fortune speculating in Shanghai’s newly established stock market in the 1990s, but now the tycoon runs a huge conglomerate active in several industries, with a total wealth estimated at US$1.6 billion.
He is one of a number of Chinese collectors who have made headlines in global art sales circles.
Yet some have faced a domestic backlash with accusations of lavish spending and showing off, even as they claim to be returning cultural relics to China.
Critics have openly challenged the motives of real-estate developer Huang Nubo, (黃怒波) who paid US$1.6 million for seven white marble columns from Beijing’s Old Summer Palace, which will be displayed at his alma mater, Peking University.