Tycoon takes home Tibetan tapestry to 'return art to China'

HONG KONG - Chinese tycoon Liu Yiqian was handed official ownership of his latest multi-million art auction purchase - a Tibetan tapestry - in Hong Kong Thursday, saying it was part of his bid to bring historic artworks back to the mainland.

The Shanghai-based taxi driver-turned-financier snapped up the silk tapestry in November for $45 million (S$62 million) at Christie's in Hong Kong, which the auctioneer said broke the world record for any Chinese work of art sold by an international auction house.

Liu is one of China's wealthiest men and among the country's new class of super-rich scouring the globe for artworks.

He was back in Hong Kong Thursday for the official "handover" of the artwork - although Christie's simply gave him a certificate saying the tapestry was more than three metres tall and too big to display.

The 600-year-old 'thangka', embroidered in vivid hues of red and gold, will be exhibited next year at Shanghai's Long Museum - which Liu founded.

The new wave of Chinese collectors have been faced with a domestic backlash, with accusations of overspending and showing off.

But Liu, 51, said he had bought the rare piece because he was "overwhelmed" by it.

"Human beings are trivial in front of the thangka - we have to bear a humble attitude... it embodies the Buddhist culture." Christie's said the tapestry was thought to have been made by craftsmen from the Chinese city of Suzhou and is believed to have been an imperial gift to a Tibetan Buddhist leader.

Beijing has ruled Tibet since 1951, a year after invading, and considers the Himalayan region an integral part of its territory.

But the Tibetan government in exile and some scholars dispute China's historical claims.

"If you look at it from the perspective of politics and diplomacy in ancient China it is... of great importance, because 600 years ago Tibet was a part of China already," Liu said.

"My museum and myself will participate in bidding in future when we see good artwork." In April, Liu bought a tiny Ming Dynasty wine cup - known as a "chicken cup" - which broke the world auction record for Chinese porcelain at $36.05 million.

Liu famously later drank tea from the cup, triggering criticism over his treatment of the expensive treasure.

A Song Dynasty calligraphy scroll he bought in 2013 for $8.2 million at Sotheby's in New York also sparked controversy after its authenticity was questioned.