Skip to main content

Billionaire buys famous painting with AmEx card, gets tens of millions of reward points

In this Oct. 9, 2015, file photo, a member of staff at Christie's auction house looks at a painting by Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani entitled ‘Reclining Nude’ as it goes on display in London. When Chinese billionaire Liu Yiqian decided to spend $170-million to buy the painting by Modigliani, earlier this month he told the auction house to just put it on his credit card.

Alastair Grant/AP

Chinese billionaire Liu Yiqian, who doesn't exactly struggle to afford a plane ticket, can now likely fly free, in first class, with his whole family, anywhere in the world, for the rest of his life.

All because he bought a painting.

Liu was the winning bidder for Amedeo Modigliani's "Reclining Nude" at a Christie's auction this month – offering $170.4-million – and when the sale closes he'll be putting it on his American Express card.

Story continues below advertisement

Liu, a high-profile collector of Chinese antiquities and art, has used his AmEx in the past when he's won art auctions. He put a $36-million tea cup from the Ming Dynasty on his AmEx last year, according to reports, and put other artifacts on his card this year. He and his wife said they plan on using their American Express card to pay for the Modigliani, according to news reports after the sale.

American Express will not confirm Liu Yiqian's Modigliani purchase, or say if it would be the biggest ever on their cards, citing privacy reasons. But it can be done.

"In theory, it's possible to put a ($170-million purchase) on an American Express card," said American Express spokeswoman Elizabeth Crosta. "It is based on our relationship with that individual card member and these decisions are made on a case-by-case basis, based on our knowledge of their spending patterns."

Liu has an American Express Centurion Card, also known as the AmEx "black card," an invitation-only card that is given only to AmEx's biggest spending clients. The card has no official credit limit – and it earns points, just like most of the cards non-billionaires carry around.

Each AmEx card issued in each country accrues points differently. But using a baseline of one point per dollar, what American Express uses for its U.S. Platinum and Centurion Cards, Liu will earn 170,400,000 Membership Reward points for his painting purchase, which doesn't include tax or the fees Christie's charges. He has likely earned tens of millions of points for his earlier fine art buys, like the expensive tea cup.

Liu and his wife, in an interview with The New York Times, said they plan to use the points to allow their family to travel for the rest of their lives.

That shouldn't be a problem, according to Zach Honig, editor-in-chief of the travel rewards site ThePointsGuy.com.

Story continues below advertisement

"He's probably reached that goal with that single painting," Honig says.

Honig estimates that if Liu converted his Membership Rewards points into one of a number of airline frequent flier programs, he and his family could travel anywhere, in style. He could fly 3,000 times between the U.S. and Europe in the ultra-deluxe first class suites offered by Singapore Airlines (estimated cost: $17,800 round trip), if he converted points to Singapore's program. Even if Liu wanted to use his AmEx points to pay for flights, a less efficient use of them, he could still redeem those points for hundreds of first class flights anywhere in the world.

Lui, who is worth $1.4-billion according to Forbes, probably didn't use his Amex for the points. China allows its citizens to transfer no more than $50,000 out of the country in any year, and using his card could help him get around this limit because he's just paying back American Express or the bank in China who issues his card.

It's a common tactic, says Bill Majcher, a former financial crimes investigator for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police who is now based in Hong Kong working as an investment banker.

"One simple little black AmEx card or one credit card, you never know what somebody's limits are," he said. "And some people have unlimited amounts based on their wealth and ability to pay."

One potential loser here could be Christie's. Every time an American Express card holder uses the card, AmEx charges the merchant a fee. That fee is usually 2 to 3 per cent, depending on the merchant. For a $170-million painting, millions of dollars could flow to AmEx instead of Christie's – enough, presumably, for AmEx to pay for the Liu family's future flights, and then some.

Report an error
Tickers mentioned in this story
Unchecking box will stop auto data updates
Comments

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • All comments will be reviewed by one or more moderators before being posted to the site. This should only take a few moments.
  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed. Commenters who repeatedly violate community guidelines may be suspended, causing them to temporarily lose their ability to engage with comments.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.
Cannabis pro newsletter