Chinese Modern Art pioneer Wu Guanzhong's US$2.5 million flower painting led China Guardian Hong Kong sale

A masterpiece by a Chinese Modern Art pioneer was the leading lot at an auction sale last week.

Wu Guanzhong’s Clove Flowers was sold for HK$20 million (around US$2.5 million) dollars. It was held at the China Guardian Hong Kong’s Asian 20th Century and Contemporary Art Sale.

The sale total was approximately HK$143 million (around US$18.3 million) dollars. Alongside Wu's painting, the second and third most expensive paintings were sold for more than HK$10 million dollars.

The two paintings were by Masters of Chinese Modern Art – Lin Fengmian’s Lotus and Wu Dayu’s Flower Rhymes.

Lot 36 | Wu Guanzhong | Clove Flowers, Oil on canvas

Created in 1991
45.5 × 38.3 cm

  • Soobin Art Gallery, Singapore
  • Ke-shan Art Gallery, Taipei
  • Acquired directly by present private important Asian collector from the above

Estimate: HK$8,000,000 – 16,000,000

Hammer Price: HK$17,000,000

Sold: HK$20,040,000 (around US$2.5 million)

Wu Guanzhong's oil painting, Clove Flowers, was estimated at HK$8 to 16 million dollars. The auctioneer, John Chong, started the bidding at HK$7.2 million dollars. On-site, telephone and online buyers from Hong Kong and Beijing made bids. After 11 bids, the bidding price became HK$10 million dollars.

After that, the bidding war was contested between Vita Chen, General Manager of the Asian 20th Century and Contemporary Art Department; and gentlemen at the auctions. After 10 further bids, the hammer was dropped at HK$17 million dollars – more than double than its low estimate. The painting was sold at HK$20 million (around US$2.5 million) dollars to a gentleman with paddle number 239. 

This painting was the artist's dedication to his wife. In 1991, Wu Guanzhong was a well-known artist at home and abroad. He was awarded the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture. He was also preparing for a large-scale solo exhibition to be held at the British Museum in 1992. However, in the spring of that year, his wife suffered from a serious illness, which made Wu Guanzhong too worried to paint.

During this period, he saw the old manuscript of his wife's painting of clove flowers, and was encouraged to start painting again. In his writing Selected Works, he wrote "I usually don't draw flowers. Seeing my wife's old manuscript cloves, I imitate it." 

Wu and his wife

Wu Guanzhong created only 10 still life oil paintings of vase flowers in his entire life. This is the only work with the theme of clove flowers, which is included in Wu Guanzhong's catalogue raisonne called Self-Selected Works (1992). The book only included 65 oil paintings that the Chinese artist thought was the best suited, and this painting is one of them.

Both the bouquet and the background behind vividly reflect a form of simplification - the purified yellow, red, green and other small colour dots closely blended with the white and pink large colour blocks, showing a a sense of changing repetition. Thus, in the conversion of points, lines and surfaces, the rhythm of life itself displayed with colour and brush. 

In 1992, the work was exhibited at Taipei's Shinkong Mitsukoshi Who Dances with Silver Hair exhibition. After the current collector bought the work from the exhibition, it was kept for 30 years and never appeared publicly until its auction debut now.

Lot 32 | Lin Fengmian | Lotus, Ink and colour on paper

Created in circa early 1980s
69 × 137.5 cm

  • Acquired directly by present important Asian collector Wong Lian Fon from Hong Kong Chung Kiu Chinese Products Emporium in the early 1980s

Estimate: HK$2,500,000 – 4,500,000

Hammer Price: HK$10,000,000

Sold: HK$11,850,000 (around US$1.5 million)

The second most expensive lot was Lin's Lotus. This work was estimated at HK$2.5 to 4.5 million dollars. The auctioneer started the auction at HK$2.2 million. Buyers from Beijing, Hong Kong and online bids were received, and the competition was fierce. The bidding gradually increased by HK$200,000, 500,000, and 800,000. After 30 bids, the hammer was finally dropped at HK$10 million dollars – 4 times its low estimate. It was sold at HK$11.85 million (around US$1.5 million) dollars. 

Lotus is a rectangular shape, with a width of 137.5 cm. This is uncommonly found in Lin Fengmian's works, as most of his works are squarish. There are only 53 of these larger works, six of which are paintings depicting lotuses. This Lotus painting is the largest of the six works.

China Guardian's auctioneer, John Chong

This painting is mainly painted using different intonations of green and white. The lotus flowers' beauty are depicted - from their birth to full bloom. 

Lin chose to paint lotuses because he was Principal at Hangzhou Art College, and saw lotus blossom every summer. Lotus was painted in the 1980s, when Lin Fengmian left Hangzhou for Hong Kong. Painting lotuses can be considered as the artist's nostalgia for his youth.

This work originally belonged to the old collection of the renowned Hong Kong collector, Wang Lianfon. He collected more than 80 works by Lin Fengmian in his lifetime and the two men became friends. This year, Lotus appeared in auction for the first time.

Lot 37 | Wu Dayu | Flower Rhymes, Oil on canvas

Created in 1960s
60 × 48 cm

  • 13 Apr 1997, Sotheby's Taipei Spring Auction, Lot 57
  • Acquired directly by present important private Asian collector from the above

Estimate: HK$9,000,000 – 15,000,000

Hammer Price: HK$9,000,000

Sold: HK$10,680,000 (around US$1.3 million)

Wu Dayu's abstract oil painting, Flower Rhymes, was sold for HK$10.68 million (around US$1.3 million) dollars. It was the third most expensive painting in the sale.

Wu Dayu was part of the pioneering Chinese artists who travelled to France to study art. After returning to China, he founded Hangzhou Art College with Lin Fengmian and others. Together, they became the forerunners of Chinese Modern Art. Wu wrote a lot of art theories throughout his life, and put forward the potential image theory. He wanted to combine the concept of Western Abstract Art with Chinese calligraphy, philosophy, and painting theory together. This theory influenced many artists - most notably the three musketeers of Chinese Art - Wu Guanzhong, Zao Wou-ki and Chu Teh-chun. 

Despite making a profound impact on a large number of artists, many of Wu's works were unfortunately destroyed during the Cultural Revolution and Wars of Resistance against Japan. Only 159 oil paintings survived; and amongst which, 17 painted in the 1960s exist. The Flower Rhyme sold in this auction is one of them.

Wu Dayu

Throughout his life Wu painted many works based on flower motifs and poured a multitude of colours into his artworks. In this piece, Wu takes a vase flowing with vigour and conceals it among abstract brushstrokes. He uses chrome yellow and royal blue as his main tones, using this simple choice of colour to blend object and self. 

The last time this work appeared in auctions dates back to 1997 - at Sotheby's Taipei. The current collector has kept it since its purchase from the auction.

Lot 35 | Wu Guanzhong | A New House, Oil on board  

Created in 1972
36 × 28 cm

  • 25 Sep 1989, Christie's Hong Kong Autumn Auction, Lot 117
  • Acquired directly by present important private Asian collector from the above

Estimate: HK$5,600,000 – 9,600,000

Hammer Price: HK$7,200,000

Sold: HK$8,574,000 (around US$1.1 million)

Another one of Wu's oil paintings is called A New House. It was sold for HK$8.57 million (around US$1.1 million) dollars, the fourth most expensive in the auctions.

The painting was created during the Cultural Revolution, when many Chinese artists were sent to the countryside. There, artists were forbidden to paint and only work. In such an environment, although Wu Guanzhong could not paint, he was always observing the natural things.

Until 1972, Wu was allowed to paint every Sunday. With a lack of materials, he took a small blackboard and started painting. A New House takes a very special perspective, drawing the landlord's home, the land and greenery. The texture is rich, with thick colours highlighting the details of melon leaves, as well as the twists and turns of vines. The artist drew lines with a scratch pen to bring out a sense of dynamism. The orange door in the painting symbolises the bright road to the future.

This work was first auctioned at Christie's in Hong Kong in 1989. It was the first Wu oil painting sold in Asia. In the end, the current collector bid for HK$200,000.

After 32 years of collection, this painting reappeared in auction. It was sold for HK$8.57 million (around US$1.1 million) dollars  approximately 43 times its original price.

Other highlight lots:

Lot 41 | Zao Wou-ki | 23.09.76, Oil on canvas

Created in 1976
50 × 84 cm

  • Eugenia and Joan De Muga, Spain (1977-2011)
  • Private Collection, Asia
  • 7 Jun 2015, Ravenel Taipei Spring Auction, Lot 237
  • Acquired directly by present important Asian collector from the above

Estimate: HK$6,500,000 – 8,500,000

Sold: HK$6,850,000 (around US$880,000)

Lot 43 | Yayoi Kusama | Flowers, Acrylic on canvas

Created in 1996
18 × 14 cm

  • 2 Dec 2018, Ravenel Taipei Autumn Auction, Lot 220
  • Acquired directly by present important Asian collector from the above

Estimate: HK$1,700,000 – 2,500,000

Sold: HK$4,680,000 (around US$600,000)

Auction Summary:

Auction House: China Guardian Hong Kong

Sale: Asian 20th Century and Contemporary Art

Date: 12 October 2021

Number of lots: 172