• Market
  • Oct 07, 2020

Chinese Modernists Ring Up Huge Prices Again

SANYU’s Fleurs dans un pot bleu et blanc (1950s) sold for USD 25.5 million at Sotheby’s Hong Kong. Courtesy Sotheby’s.

Amid the global Covid-19 pandemic and recession, demand for brand-name Chinese modernist painters shows no sign of dissipating. At Sotheby’s Hong Kong’s Modern Art Evening and Day Sales on October 5 and October 6, buyers spent more than HKD 819 million (USD 106 million) on 20th-century art from Asia. Leading the way were a nude and a still life by midcentury émigré Sanyu and a panoramic landscape in oil by Wu Guanzhong, which all topped the USD 20 million mark, while other paintings by postwar Chinese painters achieved record prices. 

On October 5, the evening sale’s four anticipated highlights—two canvases by Sanyu and two by Wu Guanzhong—did not disappoint. Sanyu’s anemic white-blossomed potted plant against a dark-blue ground, Fleurs dans un pot bleu et blanc (1950s), led the way with a hammer price of HKD 187 million (USD 25.5 million). The oil-on-masonite flew past its high estimate of HKD 70 million (USD 9 million) during a 15 minute bidding battle, and surpassed results for his other painting, Nu (1950–60s), depicting a naked woman on her back with her breast and face visible between her legs, which sold for HKD 168.7 million (USD 23 million). Wu Guanzhong’s gray-toned mountainscape Scenery of Northern China (both 1973), offered with undisclosed estimates, fetched HKD 151.4 million (USD 20.7 million) while his vertical view of a mountain village, Scenery of Guilin, earned HKD 43.4 million (USD 5.6 million), above its high estimate of HKD 26 million. 

Among the perennial stars of the Chinese modernist market, Zao Wou-ki remains highly sought-after. A modest-sized example of his classic ink-wash gestural style in oil, 17.06.61 (1961), sold within estimates at HKD 25.6 million (USD 3.3 million). The canvas has been flipped twice in the last decade, appearing at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in 2012 and Christie’s Hong Kong in 2015, when it was purchased at HKD 17,440,000 (USD 2.5 million). Chu Teh-Chun is another favorite, with the inky, swirling abstraction No. 312 (1969) going for HKD 60.7 million (USD 7.8 million), and his calligraphy Su Dongpao La Falaise Rouge (1994), selling for more than six times its high estimate at HKD 3.8 million (USD 490,000). 

WU GUANZHONG’s Scenery of Northern China (1973) made USD 20.7 million at Sotheby’s Hong Kong. Courtesy Sotheby’s.

Other artists of the same period also did well along with the increase in demand for the category. A 1952 Cubist-influenced still life of a tabletop with fruit by another auction mainstay, Lin Fengmian, sold for HKD 6.2 million (800,000) above its 4.5 million (USD 581,000) high estimate. Two paintings by Zao Wou-ki’s first wife, Xie Jinglan, known by the pseudonym Lalan sold well, with the marbled textured abstraction Les Formes Sortent du Bleu et du Vert (1972) achieving more than HKD 11 million (1.4 million), above a high estimate of HKD 6.5 million (USD 839,000), and an untitled painting (1993) nearly doubling its high estimate to pass HKD 3.5 million (USD 452,000). 

Taiwanese postwar artists also fared well. An abstracted relief print of mountain peaks and a yellow orb on a folding screen by Fifth Moon Group member Chen Ting-Shih, Day and Night #25 (1973), more than doubled its high estimate to pass the HKD 1 million threshold (USD 129,000), while a pink and orange abstraction from Hsiao Chin, Volare Sopra Il Giardino Eterno – 19 (1998), sold within estimates at HKD 1.5 million (USD 194,000). 

Among the sale’s few off notes were two minimalist abstractions by Richard Lin: March 1962 failed to find a buyer at a low estimate of HKD 1 million (USD 129,030), while his June 1958 sold for HKD 1.26 million (USD 163,000), well below its low estimate of HKD 2.5 million (USD 323,000). A reclining nude by Walasse Ting, Eat Me, I’m A Fish (1978), also failed to find a home, with a low estimate of HKD 1.5 million (USD 193,540), while a second Ting painting, a colorfully splattered abstraction, Ten Miles Fly Red Little Flowers (1973) topped HKD 2.5 million (USD 323,000).

This season marked the last at Sotheby’s for Vinci Chang, head of the Modern Asia Art department, whose departure was announced with the results. There was no word on her next endeavor, however, in Chang’s six-year tenure at the house, the market for Chinese modern art has expanded enormously. She oversaw numerous blockbuster sales, including Zao Wou-ki’s largest canvas Juin-Octobre 1985 (1985), which reached the astronomical price of HKD 510 million (USD 65.8 million) in 2018. At the house’s Modern Art Evening Sale in July, Sanyu’s Quatre Nus (1952) earned HKD 258 million (USD 33.3 million). Felix Kwok, currently the department’s head of sales and an auctioneer, will succeed her. 

HG Masters is deputy editor and deputy publisher of ArtAsiaPacific.

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