Who Were the Bestselling Asian Artists at Auction in 2023?

The first-place finisher beat out Pablo Picasso in the global rankings.

Zhang Daqian, Pink Lotuses on Gold Screen (1973). Photo by South China Morning Post / Alamy Stock Photo.

This article originally ran in The Asia Pivot, Artnet Pro’s biweekly members-only newsletter providing mission-critical analysis, insights, and exclusive intelligence on developments in Asia’s art markets, with a focus on business opportunities and challenges. Subscribe here to receive it directly to your inbox.

Numbers Don’t Lie

Before the launch of The Asia Pivot in October, we asked our friends and contacts in the art world what they most wanted to see in it. One popular answer was data, and this week, we offer you an exclusive list—the top-selling Asian artists in 2023. Who came in at number one? Drum roll, please!

The bestselling Asian artist of the year was the 20th-century Chinese painter Zhang Daqian (or Chang Dai-chien). According to data from the Artnet Price Database, Zhang, who died in 1983, at 83, achieved a total sales value (TSV) of $248 million at auction last year, up nearly 38 percent from 2022’s $180.6 million figure. Not only was he the bestselling Asian artist in 2023, but he was also number two globally, after Pablo Picasso, who had a TSV of $595.7 million. Zhang’s ranking was up by 12 places from 2022, when he came in at 14.

Zhang Daqian

Zhang Daqian, Autumn Mountains in Twilight. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

This result may come as a surprise to some, especially those who focus on contemporary art. The list of top-selling Asian artists has been dominated by living Japanese artists in recent years, such as Yayoi Kusama (eighth in 2023, TSV $190 million) and Yoshitomo Nara (21st, TSV $88 million). These names often appear in sales at the three major international auction houses, which are widely covered by Western media. Their fame has skyrocketed internationally over the last decade, and their names generate clicks in the pageview-driven online publishing sphere.

But Chinese artists born in the late 19th or early 20th century who may be lesser known to a Western audience have been commanding high prices for a long time, and their works have been trading at not just the major auction houses in Hong Kong, but also local and regional sales in mainland China and some parts of Asia.

Zhang, for one, is a household name in the Sinosphere and has been dubbed the Picasso of the East. The two artists actually became friends in the late 1950s and exchanged paintings. Like his Spanish colleague, Zhang was prolific, which helps explain why his works are frequently traded on the secondary market, selling for multi-million dollars.

Born in Sichuan in 1899, Zhang was famous for his celebrated splashed-ink technique. One prime example of his style is the mystic landscape painting Autumn Mountains in Twilight (1967), which sold for HK$199 million (about $25.5 million; all figures include fees) at December’s blockbuster sale at Sotheby’s Hong Kong of 21 of his paintings from the Mei Yun Tang collection. The auction, of fresh-to-market work, totaled HK$295.5 million ($37.8 million).

Yayoi Kusama, INFINITY NETS (GGF) (2017). Courtesy of Christie's Images, Ltd.

Yayoi Kusama, INFINITY NETS (GGF) (2017). Courtesy of Christie’s Images, Ltd.

But Zhang’s top-selling work in 2023 was Pink Lotuses on Gold Screen (1973), a splashed ink and color on gold paper on two-panel screen. It sold for HK$251.6 million ($32 million) at a Sotheby’s Hong Kong sale in April.

Among the top 100 Zhang lots sold in 2023, nearly half of them achieved a price above $1 million, including four that went for an eight-digit sum. The lowest-priced work on this list, an ink on paper hanging scroll titled Buddhist Monastery in the Mountains (prior to March 1958), still sold for a formidable $406,597.

Other Asian names among the top 40 artists at auction worldwide in 2023 (most of whom are Chinese) include Qi Baishi (9th, TSV $186.9 million), Wu Guanzhong (13th, TSV $108 million), Zao Wou-Ki (Chinese/French, 24th, TSV $77.8 million), Fu Baoshi (27th, TSV $68.9 million), and Huang Binhong (40th, TSV $50 million). However, none of them are living artists. The top-selling living Chinese artist in 2023 was Liu Ye—all the way back at 46th, with a TSV of $42.3 million.

There’s a lot more to unpack in this data set, which offers insights into the state of Asian art markets. Another name worth mentioning is Japanese jewelry artist Mitsuo Kaji (b. 1944). Last year, he achieved a TSV of $4.9 million, jumping from 24,550th on the worldwide list to 350th. Meanwhile, the Filipino social realist and post-Cubist artist Anita Magsaysay-Ho (1914–2012) climbed to 395th in 2023 from 19,294th.

That’s it for this week. See you in a fortnight.

This article was originally published in The Asia Pivot on February 21, 2024.

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