Chinese Billionaire Collector Liu Yiqian Spends HK$306m on a Rare Classical Painting at Sotheby’s Hong Kong

In 2016, 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 auction. 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.

Four years later, the painting resurfaced in the market at Sotheby’s Fall sales in Hong Kong and was just sold for an eye-watering HK$306m (US$39.48m) after a prolonged bidding battle that lasted for an hour with over 160 bids. It becomes the second most valuable work of art that Sotheby’s has ever sold in Asia, preceded only by the Zao Wou-Ki’s triptych that sold for HK$510m in 2018.

Shortly after the auction, Chinese billionaire and mega-collector Liu Yiqian, founder of Long Museum, alluded himself as the buyer with a post on his social media platform.

Liu Yiqian and his wife, Wang Wei

Five Drunken Princes Returning (partial)

Five Drunken Princes Returning (partial)

The auction was presided over by Felix Kwok, who has recently been promoted to the Head of Sale, Modern Asian Art. The bidding for Five Drunken Princes Returning on Horseback opened at around 12:50pm and lasted for more than an hour before the gavel was finally brought down. It was definitely a physically and mentally demanding task, but the auctioneer managed to handle it with calmness and stamina while switching languages between English, Mandarin and Cantonese throughout the whole time.

The painting was once sold for RMB303m but the sale didn’t go through. Now it reappeared on the auction stage with an estimate of HK$80m-120m, along with concerns being raised whether it can fetch a high price again. The final price shows its appeal has not dwindled over the years.

Felix Kwok, Head of Sale, Modern Asian Art

An intense bidding war was ignited right after Felix Kwok opened the bidding at HK$50m. During the initial stage, there were five main bidders– four telephone bidders respectively represented by Kevin Ching (CEO, Asia), Patti Wong (Chairwoman, Asia), Nicolas Chow (Chairman, Asia) and Carrie Li (Senior Specialist, Chinese Works of Art), together with a gentleman in the room.

  • At around HK$100m | Carrie Li’s client was the first to drop out
  • HK$121.5m | A lady in the room joined in with a new bid
  • At around HK$125m| Patti Wong’s client quitted
  • At around HK$145m | Kevin Ching’s client stopped offering higher bids

Five Drunken Princes Returning (partial)

Five Drunken Princes Returning (partial)

When the price reached HK$145m, only Nicolas Chow’s client and the lady in the room remained active and further pushed the price up to HK$199m. At this point, Chow’s client had no intention to offer a higher bid. While the lady was just a step away from taking the painting home, Kevin Ching’s client returned to the battlefield with a new bid that crossed the HK$200m benchmark, followed by a round of applause. Both bidders were adamant and the price continued to soar until the hammer was down at HK$265m, a winning bid by Ching’s client with a paddle no. L0054. The painting was sold for HK$306m (US$39.48m) after premium.

Shortly after the auction, Chinese billionaire and mega-collector Liu Yiqian, posted pictures of the painting on his social media account with a caption ‘Six Dragons, Nine Horses, returning to the hometown gloriously. Time has flown by so quickly. It's worth the wait for good items,’ implying himself as the owner of The Five Drunken Princes Returning.

The Five Drunken Princes Returning depicted a scene with five princes, four servants and nine horses. Liu was the underbidder when the painting was auctioned off in Beijing four years ago. It’s worth the wait now that the painting is finally heading to his collection.

Six Dragons refer to the eponymous painting by Chen Rong, a masterpiece documented in the prestigious imperial catalogue Shiqu Baoji. This painting was sold for US$48.96m at Christie’s New York in 2017.

Ren Renfa (1255-1327), Five Drunken Princes Returning on Horseback
ink and colour on paper, handscroll

Size: 35.2 x 210.7 cm

  • Two seals of the artist
  • Colophon by Chen Jiru (1558-1639) and with two seals of his; by Wang Yongji (?-1653), dated renshen (1632)
  • One collector's seal of Zhu Shangbin (1555-1623)
  • Eight collector's seals of Liang Qingbiao(1620-1691)
  • Five collector's seals of Geng Zhaozhong(1640-1686)
  • Eight seals of the Qianlong Emperor, including Shiqu baoji ('The Precious Collection of the Stone Canal Pavilion')
  • One seal of Jiaqing Emperor
  • Three seals of Xuantong Emperor
  • Three collector's seals of Walter Hochstadter(1914-2007)
  • Seven other collectors' seals


  • Previously in the collections of Wu Qiong, Wang Yongji, Liang Qingbiao, Geng Zhaozhong.
  • Qing Imperial Court Collection.
  • Collection of Henry Puyi (1906-1967), last emperor of China.
  • C.T. Loo (1880-1957).
  • Walter Hochstadter (1914-2007).
  • Christie's Hong Kong, Fine Classical Chinese Painting and Calligraphy, 29th November 2009, lot 815.
  • Beijing Poly Auction, 4th December 2016, sold for RMB 303 (The transaction was reportedly incompleted in the end)

Estimate: HK$80,000,000 - 120,000,000
Hammer price: HK$265,000,000
Price realised: HK$306,551,000

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.

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. Yet, specialists hold different opinions regarding which figure in the painting is Li Longji, the prince who later became the Emperor Xuanzong (685-762).

Beijing Poly Auction’s specialists identified the man in red robe as Li Longji, based on the historical records suggesting that the emperor was known for keeping a beautiful white horse. So when the painting was offered in 2016, specialists believed Li Longji is the man riding on the white horse.

But Sotheby’s specialists think otherwise. Their theory is based on a poetry ‘Five Drunken Princes Returning on Horseback by Ren Renfa’ by Cheng Minzheng (1445-1499) of the Ming Dynasty. According to Cheng Minzheng’s interpretation, the man who wears the yellow robe and rides the black horse is Li Longji.

They also found close similarities between the figure and an image of Li Longji in another Ren Renfa’s painting titled Zhang Guo Having an Audience with Emperor Tang Xuangzong (the selected part is shown as below).

Measuring 35.2 x 210.7cm, Five Drunken Princes Returning on Horseback 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.

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).

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. Is it interesting that the painting finally comes into Liu’s collection after four years?

Huang Yue; Zhao Bingchong, Landscapes After Si Kongtu.
Ink and colour on paper, an album of forty-eight leaves|Realised the second-highest price at the sale

Size: 16.6 x 6.6 cm

  • Christie's New York, Fine Chinese Paintings and Calligraphy, 4 June 1986, Lot 105

Estimate: HK$5,000,000 - 8,000,000
Hammer price: HK$17,000,000
Price realised: HK$20,745,000

Auction summary

Auction house: Sotheby’s Hong Kong
Sale: Fine Classical Chinese Paintings
Sale date: 8 October 2020
Lots offered: 75
Sold: 55
Unsold: 20
Sell-through rate: 73%
Sale total: HK$375,649,800