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Liu Yiqian, a billionaire Chinese investor, recently purchased a Modigliani painting for $170.4 million, putting him in an elite club of rich people who paid a lot of money for art.

Buried in the New York Times story about his purchase and life was an interesting detail about his motivation for the Modigliani purchase:

There is another, more personal, benefit to the acquisition: airfare. Ms. Wang confirmed that, as in the past, she and Mr. Liu would be using their American Express card to pay for the Modigliani. That way, with the cardholder’s points they accrue, their whole family — the couple, their four children and two grandchildren — can continue flying for free.

“We are on a one-year payment plan for the painting,” Ms. Wang said. “If we had to pay cash upfront, that would be a little difficult for us.”

She added: “I mean, who has the money for that?”

Indeed!

Yiqian has done this before: He accrued 422 million points with Amex for buying an ancient ceramic cup last year, according to Bloomberg. He's also bought other art, partly for Amex points.

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I called American Express to find out more about the details of that kind of transaction.

Spokeswoman Marina Norville told me that she could not talk about any individual's purchases or account. However, Amex does offer charge cards that have no "preset" spending limits. In other words, it is possible to charge $170.4 million on one, as long as you can prove you have the ability to repay it.

Norville said it's hard to calculate the kind of points a hypothetical customer would accrue with that kind of purchase, though. It depends on the card, depends on the customer and depends on the merchant. Some cards have generous rewards that are capped at a certain level, and some merchants have special deals with Amex.

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As far as art galleries go, Sotheby's has something of a love-hate relationship with Amex, having dumped the card in the 90s, and then charged customers an extra fee for using it. The Modigliani auction Yiqian won on Nov. 9 was with Christie's.

I oversee Fusion's money section and have spent most of my time as a journalist writing about banks and finance. I live in Brooklyn with my partner Geoffrey & our two dogs, Captain & Tallulah. Favs: leopard print, Diet Coke, gummy candy, Ireland.