Over the past few weeks, hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of artworks changed hands at major Chinese auction houses during this year’s autumn auction season. The two major auction houses, China Guardian Auctions and Poly International Auction, offered 55% more lots this season than they did at the same time last year, contributing to a 28% increase in combined total sales value. Record prices were achieved in both classical and Contemporary Chinese Art categories, giving the market a much-needed boost after experiencing a contraction in 2012.
Chinese Painting and Calligraphy
This season, Chinese painting and calligraphy remains the largest collecting category in the market. The top lot of the season was a work on paper, Steppe of Exuberance, by Modern master Huang Zhou (Chinese, 1925–1997), sold at Poly International Auction for US$19.3 million (¥128.8 million).
Huang is known for his Socialist Realist works. In contrast to classical Chinese hand scrolls, which emphasize simplicity, Huang’s works feature vibrant colors and exotic figures in motion. Exploring the subject of the Tajik Minority in Xinjiang Province, Steppe of Exuberance is one of the artist’s signature pieces, and achieved the highest price paid for Huang’s work, and for any other works sold during the autumn auction season.
Huang joined the People’s Liberation Army in 1949, and lived along the Chinese northwest border. This experience is encapsulated in the pièce de résistance, On Patrol, created during Huang’s early career. Sold at Beijing Council International Auction for US$6.8 million (¥45.4 million), the second-highest price paid for the artist’s work this season, On Patrol resembles a juxtaposition of wintry weather and cavalry, bearing a striking resemblance to Soviet propaganda. With provenance guaranteed by related organizations and foundations, Huang’s works have consistently performed well and been in high demand among collectors in the mainland market.
While classical Chinese paintings and calligraphy have a relatively small collector base, the market performance for this sector was impressive this season. Works from the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), especially those of the prestigious Wu School, have achieved high prices this season.
In terms of artistic innovation, the Wu School played a pivotal role in 16th-century literati painting. Considered the founder of the school, Shen Zhou (Chinese, 1427–1509) was an expert at capturing delicate scenes in his works. Landscape after the style of Wu Zhen conveys, with effortless elegance, a peaceful retreat where the inner self is embraced. With seals of the Qianlong (1735–1786) and Jiaqing (1796–1820) emperors, this large-scale album was part of the Qing imperial court collection. After 14 rounds of bidding, this album was sold for US$7.6 million (¥50.6 million) at Poly International Auction, setting a new record for the artist.
Another work by the Wu School master Wen Zhengming (Chinese, 1470–1559), Calligraphy in Running Script, sold for US$7.7 million (¥51.2 million) at China Guardian Auctions, the highest price realized at Guardian’s important evening sale Grand View: Classical Chinese Painting Highlight.
Wen was a student of Shen’s, and was one of the most important artists in the Ming dynasty. This hand scroll included 10 of the artist’s poems in running script, written later in his career. This work was part of the treasured collection of the Qing dynasty emperors, and has a clear provenance, contributing to its achieving the third-highest price ever paid at auction for the artist.
Chinese Modern and Contemporary Art
Realist paintings, part of the Chinese Modern and Contemporary Art category, also did very well at auction this season. The star lot, Tajik Bride by Jin Shangyi (Chinese, b.1934), was sold for US$12.8 million (¥85.1 million) at China Guardian Auctions. This price set a new record for the artist, as well as for all works ever sold in Chinese oil painting and sculpture sales at Guardian.
Born in 1934, Jin is regarded as one of the most remarkable and influential Chinese oil painters. He graduated from China Central Academy of Fine Arts and has taught there ever since. His work combines Old Master techniques and Chinese aesthetics, and features portraits of women and intellectuals. This work was created at the beginning of the “golden period” in the artist’s career, and was considered one of the first works of the Chinese New Classicism movement. Jin created two paintings on the same subject in 1983; the earlier one was bought by the National Art Museum of China in the same year; and the later one (almost identical to the previous) went to a Japanese collection, and has just made its way back to China after 30 years of traveling overseas.
Even though the Chinese Contemporary art market contracted significantly last year, top lots were still able to achieve high prices this season. 1997.1 by Fang Lijun (Chinese, b.1963) is one of the artist’s most important works, and has been published in 20 catalogues, and was included in five major exhibitions. This work fetched US$4.3 million (¥28.8 million), slightly above the artist’s previous record, achieved in 2007 at Sotheby’s New York.
Over the next few days, other major Chinese auction houses will continue to hold sales of both traditional and Contemporary Chinese Art. Highlights include: two important classical Chinese paintings, Flower and insect (album) and Narcissus and stone, by Ming dynasty master Chen Hongshou (Chinese, 1598–1652), presented at Duo Yun Xuan Auctions, and estimated slightly below the artist’s previous record price; one of Zhang Daqian’s best portraits of Avalokitasvara in the artist’s early career, leading the Modern Chinese Painting and Calligraphy sale at the same auction house; and oil paintings by Su Xinping (Chinese, b.1960) and Xia Xing (Chinese, b.1958), presented at Huayi International Auctions.
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