Christie’s Hong Kong Seeks to Seize a $33 Million Record for Chinese-French Modernist Sanyu

With its ambitious estimate, Christie's hopes to outdo Sanyu's current world auction record of $25 million this November.

Sanyu, Five Nudes, ca. 1955. Image courtesy of Christie's Images Ltd.
Sanyu, Five Nudes, ca. 1955. Image courtesy of Christie's Images Ltd.

Christie’s is looking to make history in Hong Kong next month. The house hopes to recalibrate the market for the late Chinese-French modernist Sanyu at its evening sale of 20th century and contemporary works on November 23. Headlining the auction will be Sanyu’s bravura oil on masonite Five Nudes (ca. 1955), the artist’s largest-ever painting of the feminine form, with a low estimate of HK $250 million (US $33 million).

Assuming bidding reaches the work’s low estimate (and likely even just the reserve price), Christie’s will demolish Sanyu’s current world auction record of HK $198 million (US $25.2 million). (All sales figures include buyer’s premium and are not adjusted for inflation.) That record was set just last week by the sale of Nu (1960s), a striking painting of a single reclining female nude against a white background, at Sotheby’s Hong Kong. 

If Christie’s finds success next month, Five Nudes will become triply noteworthy in auction history. The same work was responsible for setting one of Sanyu’s previous world auction records, when it sold for HK $128 million (US $16.5 million) in 2011 at the Taipei-based auction house Ravenel—and, at the time, also established a new high mark for any oil painting by a Chinese artist, according to Christie’s. 

Born in China in 1901, Sanyu moved to Paris at age 20 and remained there until his death in 1966. The saturated colors and bold line work of his oeuvre have inspired some to refer to him as the “Chinese Matisse.” Although he married a minor aristocrat and circulated through the social scene in the City of Light, he primarily survived thanks to the largesse of his brother Chang Junmin, nicknamed the “Millionaire of Nanchong,” who managed the family’s lucrative silk-weaving business. Sanyu regularly rejected inquiries from collectors and art dealers during his lifetime. His rise to prominence began only after Taiwanese dealers encountered his work after the 1988 China-Paris exhibition at the Taipei Fine Arts Museum.

Since 2009, Sanyu’s works have generated at least $22 million per year at auction worldwide, according to the artnet Price Database. His highest annual total came in 2017, when 120 works sold under the hammer for nearly $60 million total. However, 2019 will land above that figure if Five Nudes finds a buyer, as Sanyu has already accumulated more than $41 million in auction sales from January through mid-October. All the more reason market-watchers should look East come November 23.

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