Japanese Sensational Artist Yoshitomo Nara Once Again Stood Out from His Fellow Asian Artists at Hong Kong Auction

Earlier today saw China Guardian’s Asian 20th Century and Contemporary Art Sale in Hong Kong. Among market stalwarts like abstract painters Zao Wou-ki and Wu Guanzhong, Japanese sensational names like Yayoi Kusama and Ayako Rokkaku, as well as the rest of the line-up, it was contemporary artist Yoshitomo Nara who claimed the top spot. 

His acrylic on wooden panel work, Sprout, which was painted after the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan, achieved HK$19.7m (US$2.5m).

Meanwhile, the second and third places went to a bronze sculpture by Taiwanese artist Li Chen that was sold for HK$15.5m (US$2.3m) - which is also a new auction record for the artist, and a painting by Chinese painter Wu Guanzhong, who achieved HK$14m (US$1.8m).

Lot 86 | Yoshitomo Nara, Sprout
Painted in 2011 
Acrylic on wooden panel 
Dimensions: 135.5 × 82.5 cm 

  • Blum & Poe Gallery, Los Angeles
  • Important Private Collection, Asia

Estimate: HK$12,000,000 - 22,000,000
Hammer price: HK$17,000,000
Price realized: HK$19,700,000


Yoshitomo Nara lives just an hour away from the epicenter of the earthquake in Fukushima when the tragic Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami happened in March 2011. 

Deeply inspired by his time volunteering for the quake relief groups, Nara found new inspiration and created the present painting as his reflection on the meaning of art. 

As soon as auctioneer John Chong started the bidding for the present lot at HK$10m, the bidding battle among two clients, respectively represented by Sheila So (Jewelry and Watches Department) and Vita Chen, (General Manager, Asian 20th Century and Contemporary Art), as well as an online bidder vied for the lot. After a total of seven bids in HK$1m increment, the hammer was brought down at within-estimate HK$17m and was sold to the online bidder with the paddle number 7666.

Closer looks at Nara’s Sprout


The present work, measuring 135.5 by 82.5 cm, was painted on a wooden panel to symbolize the reconstruction of Nara’s hometown after the catastrophe.

“The seemingly evil or rebellious girl is gone, instead, she is taking care of a seedling which signifies ‘rebirth’ and ‘hope’, with straight long legs that appear to grow almost directly out of the ground, as if [they were] absorbing the essence of the Earth, Sun and Moon.” said Chen before the sale.

The theme of sprouts first emerged in Nara’s oeuvre in the 1980s. The calm and serene interpretation of Nara’s iconic doe-eyed girl here is also seen in another prominent work painted in the same period, Miss Moonlight, which is currently on view in the artist’s exhibition in Taipei.

Yoshitomo Nara at his recent Taiwan exhibition, with Miss Moonlight at the back

Frog Girl | 120 x 111 cm | Sold for HK$96.3m (US$12.4m) earlier this week, Sotheby’s Hong Kong

An acrylic on canvas work by the artist, titled Frog Girl went under the hammer earlier this week at Sotheby’s Hong Kong and was sold for HK$96.3m (US$12.4m) after premium.

Lot 90 | Li Chen, Dragon-Riding Buddha
Bronze sculpture edition: 1/6
Executed in 2011
Dimensions: 330 x 293 x 200 cm

  • Asia Art Center, Taipei
  • Acquired directly by present important Asian collector from the above

Estimate: HK$5,600,000 - 12,000,000
Hammer price: HK$15,500,000
Price realized: HK$17,975,000


Taiwanese artist Li Chen is known for his unique takes on a variety of Buddha sculptures. His profound love for traditional Chinese culture and in-depth study of Taoist Buddhism are met with smooth, clean lines from Western aesthetics. 

The present bronze sculpture by Li, Dragon-Riding Buddha, elicited a fierce bidding battle among floor and phone bidders. It was hammered down for HK$15.5m, surpassing its presale high estimate of HK$12m and was sold for HK$18m (US$2.3m) with fees, setting a new auction record for the artist.

Li Chen (b.1963)


His previous record was also set at a China Guardian sale in Hong Kong, when a slightly smaller, 2.48 meter-tall Dragon-Riding Buddha sculpture, was sold for HK$1.8m (US$235,626).

Different sized editions of the present sculpture had exhibited worldwide in the past, including Paris, Venice, Beijing, Taipei, and Singapore.

A similar sculpture by Li Chen on display outside the National Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in Taipei

Lot 59 | Wu Guanzhong, Pondside Households (Hometown) 
Painted in 1996 
Oil on board 
Dimensions: 61.4 × 46 cm 
Provenance: (Organized by The Value)

  • Poly Hong Kong Autumn Auction, October 6, 2013, lot 14 (price realized: HK$8,625,000/ US$1,105,769)
  • Important Private Collection, Asia
  • Acquired directly by present private important Asian collector from the above

Estimate: HK$12,000,000 - 20,000,000
Hammer price: HK$12,000,000
Price realized: HK$13,950,000  


The bidding for Wu Guanzhong’s 1996 Pondside Households (Hometown) opened at HK$10m and lasted four minutes. The winning bid came from Vita Chen’s phone bidder, with the paddle number 323.

It achieved HK$14m (US$1.8m) after fees, a 62% increase compared to when it changed hands in a 2013 Poly Hong Kong sale for HK$8.6m (US$1.1m).

It was Chen, who won the present lot for her client with the paddle number 323


Among the “Three Musketeers” who left their hometowns in China and left for Paris in the 1940s to 1950s for their art training, Wu Guanzhong was the only one who returned to China in the 1950s - at the time when traditional Chinese paintings dominated and his works that conflate Chinese aesthetics with Western abstract expressionism had yet to be widely accepted.

During the 1960s Cultural Revolution-era China, Wu was sent to labor and was forced to take a seven-year hiatus, due to the social turmoil at the time.

Wu Guanzhong (1919-2010)


The overflowing amount of creative energy accumulated during that period enriched many of the works he created after he was finally able to pick up the paint brush again in 1972.

The present work is one of the seven works in private hands with the theme of hometown, with an additional four now residing in museums. The painting is filled with sentiments he had for his hometown, expressed through the depiction of a Jiangnan village by the lake.

Lot 47 | Zao Wou-ki, 21.01.76
Painted in 1976
Oil on canvas
Dimensions: 73.5 × 92.5 cm
Provenance: (Organized by The Value)

  • Ravenel Taipei Autumn Auction, December 7, 2014, lot 172 (price realized: NT$45,120,000/ US$1,449,406)
  • Acquired directly by present important Asian collector from the above

Estimate: HKD$12,000,000 - 18,000,000



The present work by Chinese-French abstract blue-chip Zao Wou-ki was last seen in a Ravenel Taipei auction in 2014, when it realized NT$45.1m (US$1.5m). This time in the Hong Kong saleroom, the bids for the abstract started at HK$10m but no bids were relayed from the Hong Kong and Beijing specialists, forcing the auctioneer to announce the lot as unsold. Though after the sale, a collector expressed interest and took home the present work for HK$11.8m (US$1.52m).

Zao often titled his paintings with the date of their completion, to avoid ascribing overt visual associations and the present work, 21.01.76 is one of them. Painted in 1976, a year before Zao got married with his thrid wife, Françoise Marquet, the present painting uses a vibrant colorway of orange, pea green, and bright yellow interrupting the stark black brush strokes to convey the essence of life and hope. Though a central axis, typically seen in his earlier output during his “Hurricane Period” is still there, a sense of attained contentment transformed his present work into a more unrestrained take.

Lot 3 | Mr Doodle, Doodle Kahlo
Acrylic on canvas
Painted in 2019
Dimensions: 150 × 100 cm

  • Mr Doodle Invades Sotheby's Selling Exhibition, December 6-19, 2019, no. 45
  • Acquired directly by present private Asian collector from the above

Estimate: HK$380,000 - 580,000
Hammer price: HK$700,000
Price realized: HK$826,000


The meteoric rise of Mr Doodle’s works in Asia is unstoppable. Since his works debuted at auction in April 2020, his limited-edition works and one-and-only paintings often sell for many times their estimates, with his personal auction record standing at JPY 190m (US$1.02m).

The 2019 “Mr Doodle Invades Sotheby’s Selling Exhibition” in Hong Kong cemented the artist’s status in the art market and was where the present lot came from.

Mr Doodle at the Hong Kong exhibition, 2019


The present Doodle Kahlo was one of the 50 editions available. Measuring 150 by 120 cm, the work was priced at HK$50,000 to HK$200,000 each and is believed to have been acquired by the consignor at around HK$150,000. With the work sold at today’s sale, it sees an over four times increase in value, in less than two years’ time.

Other remaining highlights from the sale include:

Lot 74 | Cai Guo-qiang, An Ancient Tale: Kuafu Running after the Sun
Painted in 1985-1986
Gunpowder and oil on canvas
Dimensions: 180 x 125 cm

  • Christie's Taipei Autumn Auction, October 14, 2001, lot 45
  • Acquired directly by important present Asian collector from the above

Estimate: $5,800,000 - 8,800,000
Hammer price: HK$8,000,000
Price realized: HK$9,350,000

Lot 36 | Lin Fengmian, Eight Beauties (Set of eight pieces)
Painted in the 1940s - 1960s
Ink and color on paper
Dimensions: 34.5 × 34.5 cm

  • Christie's Taipei Spring Auction, April 23, 2000, lot 12
  • Acquired directly by the present important private Asian collector from the above

Estimate: HK$1,500,000 - 2,500,000
Hammer price: HK$6,600,000
Price realized: HK$7,740,000


Lot 60 | Wu Guanzhong, Spring in Guilin
Painted in 1973
Oil on board
Dimensions: 28 x 36 cm

  • Received as a gift directly by the artist's granddaughter from the artist
  • Poly Beijing Autumn Auction, December 1, 2010, lot 1003
  • Poly Hong Kong Spring Auction, April 7, 2013, lot 105
  • Acquired directly by the present important private Asian collector from the above

Estimate: HK$ 5,500,000 -10,000,000
Hammer price: HK$6,000,000
Price realized: HK$7,050,000

Auction Summary

Auction house: China Guardian Hong Kong
Sale: Asian 20th Century and Contemporary Art 
Date: April 23, 2021
Lots offered: 169
Sold: 156
Unsold: 10
Sell-through rate: 92%
Sale total: HK$155,798,500 (US$20,071,988)