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September 26, 2017

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Scroll row puts art ambitions of China's rich on display

SHANGHAI -- With two museums already in his empire, tycoon Liu Yiqian is a would-be Chinese Getty or Guggenheim, but a row over the authenticity of a scroll that cost him millions of dollars threatens his artistic legacy.

The work, with nine Chinese characters in black ink reading "Su Shi respectfully bids farewell to Gong Fu, Gentleman Court Consultant," is the star exhibit at Liu's newly opened Long Museum West Bund in Shanghai.

The calligraphy is a mere 28 centimeters long by 10 centimeters wide, but Liu paid US$8.2 million to secure it at a Sotheby's auction in New York in September.

A taxi driver turned financier who is now one of the country's wealthiest people, he is among the new Chinese super-rich scouring the globe for artwork.

"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."

But 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.

But the Shanghai Museum researchers, Shan Guolin, Zhong Yinlan and Ling Lizhong, launched an unusual attack after the purchase, saying it was a much later copy.

"Traditional visual identification is already enough to make the judgment 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 argued.

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