A Rare Chinese Classical Painting from the Prestigious Qing Imperial Collection Could Fetch US$10m-15m

A rare Chinese classical painting Five Drunken Princes Returning on Horseback by renowned Yuan painter Ren Renfa had caused a huge sensation when it was sold for a whopping RMB 303m (about US$44.3m) at Beijing Poly’s auction in 2016.

The buyer was reported to be Zhang Guiping, a Chinese billionaire and the Chairman of  Suning Universal, a property and hotel business headquartered in Nanjing, Eastern China. Unfortunately, the transaction didn’t complete in the end since the consignor failed to solve issues related to exporting/ importing and taxes.

After four years, the painting resurfaces in the market and will go the under the hammer at Sotheby’s Fall sales in Hong Kong this October, carrying an estimate of HK$80m-120m (US$10.3m-15.5m).

Ren Renfa (1255-1327), Five Drunken Princes Returning on Horseback
ink and colour on paper, handscroll
Size: 35.2 x 210.7 cm
Estimate: HK$80,000,000 - 120,000,000 (US$10,340,000 – 15,510,000)

Auction house: Sotheby’s Hong Kong
Sale: Fine Chinese Classical Paintings
Date: 8 October 2020
Auction venue to be announced in due course

A closer look at Five Drunken Princes Returning on Horseback

Five Drunken Princes Returning on Horseback stands as a testimony to the turbulent history of the late Qing dynasty, having once housed in the Qing Imperial collection before passing through the hands of several prominent connoisseurs.

Measuring 35.2 x 210.7cm, the painting was created by renowned Yuan painter Ren Renfa (1255-1327), who served the Mongol court in numerous important official posts. Best known for his paintings of horses and grooms, Ren used strong outline strokes and broad areas of colour wash, the faces and postures of his subjects convey personality and activity. With much of his output either held in museums or owned by private collectors, this widely published scroll is one of the rare surviving works by the painter to come to the market.

The painting depicts five drunken princes of the Tang dynasty taking a joyous horse ride accompanied by four attendants. Dynamic in composition, it vividly portrays the strong sibling bond between the princes. One of five princes, the one with a red robe on the right side of the scroll, is Li Longji, who later became the Emperor Xuanzong (685-762).

In 710, Li Longji launched a coup against Empress Dowager Wei and helped his father, Li Dan, regained the throne. After Li Dan became emperor (as Emperor Ruizong) again, he faced a dilemma of whom to make crown prince since Li Xian (also known as Li Chengqi), the oldest son should be the rightful successor under Confucian principles whereas Li Longji was the one who helped him retake the throne. To solve the issue, Li Xian voluntarily declined consideration to be crown prince and convinced his father to choose Li Longji for his accomplishments.

Five Drunken Princes Returning on Horseback has been documented in Imperial collections since the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). It was catalogued in ‘Shiqu Baoji Xubian’, the second volume of the prestigious inventory of the Qing emperors’ collection of paintings and calligraphy. 36 collectors’ seals can be seen on the painting, including eight of Emperor Qianlong (reigned 1736-1796), one of Emperor Jiaqing (reigned 1796-1820) and three of Emperor Xuantong (reigned 1909-1911).

Seal marks on the painting

After the 1911 revolution which overthrew the Qing dynasty, the last Emperor of China, Puyi (the Emperor Xuantong) started to transport over 1,000 artworks, rare books, and traditional Chinese paintings and calligraphy from the Forbidden City since the 1920s. These artworks were transferred to an obscure two-storey cement building dubbed as ‘The Little White Building’ (Xiaobai lou) in Manchukuo, a puppet state of the Empire of Japan in Northeast China and Inner Mongolia from 1932 until 1945.

Following the dissolution of Manchukuo's government in 1945 after the surrender of Imperial Japan at the end of World War II, many artworks from the Qing Imperial collection scattered into various private collections. Five Drunken Princes Returning on Horseback was subsequently passed down to Hao Baochu, who sold the work to the preeminent art dealer C.T. Loo (1880-1957) and his son-in-law Jean-Pierre Dubosc. The painting was taken to the United States, where it was acquired by Walter Hochstadter (1914-2007), a well-known and distinguished dealer in Chinese art.

The painting was offered at Christie’s Hong Kong and fetched HK$46.58m in 2009. In 2016, it reappeared in the market at Beijing Poly auction and sparked an intense bidding battle between the billionaire art collector Liu Yiqian and Zhang Guiping, the Chairman of  Suning Universal, according to Chinese media. The painting was sold to the latter for a whopping RMB 303m (about US$44.3m). The deal didn’t go through in the end due to issues related to exporting/ importing and taxes which were yet to be settled by the seller. The painting resurfaces in the market four years later and is expected to fetch HK$80m-120m at Sotheby’s Fall sales in Hong Kong this October.

Another masterpiece formerly in the Qing Imperial Collection—The Kangxi Emperor's Southern Inspection Tour, Scroll VI by acclaimed court painter Wang Hui, will be on display during the preview sessions on 3-7 October at Hong Kong Convention & Exhibition Centre. Commissioned by the Kangxi Emperor in the late seventeenth century, The Kangxi Emperor's Southern Inspection Tour tells the story of a journey taken by the Emperor across southern China, chronicling daily life in the towns and countryside along the way. During the final years of the Qing dynasty, the scroll VI was cut into sections after leaving the imperial palace. For the first time in over a century, Sotheby’s is going to reunite these component parts and exhibit this 21-meter-long scroll VI in its entirely.