The painter Qi Baishi has become the first Chinese artist to join the $100 million club.
A set of Qi’s ink-brush panels, Twelve Landscape Screens (1925), sold for $140.8 million (931.5 million yuan) on Sunday at Poly Beijing. It is the highest price ever paid for a work of Chinese art at auction.
Only 15 other works—by artists including Andy Warhol, Pablo Picasso, and Vincent van Gogh—have sold at auction for more than $100 million (accounting for inflation), though a number of others have reportedly sold privately.
Poly Beijing did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The identity of the buyer has not been made public.
Bidding was “frenetic” and conducted entirely on the phones, recounts Leon Wender, a Chinese art expert and co-founder of New York’s China 2000 Fine Art, who attended the sale.
The artist—best known for his calligraphy and brush painting—created the work in 1925, when he was 62 years old, according to a description on Poly’s website. “It can be regarded as the most expressive style from Qi Baishi’s stylistic transformations but is also the largest in dimension of the twelve landscape screens format,” the auction house says.
The only other example of the set was produced in 1932 for Sichuan military commander Wang Zuanxu and is currently in the Three Gorges Museum in Chongqing.
Wender says he was not surprised by the price, telling artnet News via email that the artist is “the most influential of all the Chinese artists in the 20th century.” (Another interesting fact: Qi is particularly renowned for his ability to paint shrimp.)
The artist was born to a poor family in 1864 and worked as a carpenter before he began traveling throughout China at age 40. He was “highly sought after both for his huge contributions to brush painting and calligraphy as well as great seal carving technique,” Wender said. The 12-painting set, he added, has “iron-clad provenance” and “amazing condition.”
The artist previously made market headlines in 2011, when a triptych, Eagles on Pine Tree (1946), fetched a final price of $65 million at China Guardian auction house in Beijing. However, the work was a casualty of China’s widespread nonpayment problem—the buyer who won the work never actually paid for it. (As a result, the work no longer appears in the artnet Price Database.)
Prior to Sunday, Qi’s auction record was $28 million (195.5 million yuan), set in December 2016 at Poly International.
The previous auction high for a Chinese painting was the $63.9 million paid in 2010 at Poly International for Di Zhu Ming, a calligraphy painting by Huang Tingjian, according to the artnet Price Database.
Indeed, as with many sales in China, it may be wise to wait until the check is in the mail before embracing the record as a sign of a new era in the market. Incidences of non-payment for Chinese art rose seven percent in 2016, according to a study by artnet and the China Association of Auctioneers. Only 51 percent of buyers actually paid for the work they purchased in 2016, down from 58 percent in 2015.
Wender insists things are getting better, telling artnet News that the issue of non-payment is “really much more under control. The deposits necessary to bid, detailed banking information, along with a much more established known customer base make the buying process far more reliable.”
Guardian notes that Chinese artwork is overwhelmingly bought and sold within the country, and Chinese painting and and calligraphy “represented more than 80 percent of the domestic [art] market last year.”
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