Exclusive: Christie’s to Offer Rare Painting by Su Dongpo, Holy Grail of Chinese Painting

Last year, Christie’s caused a sensation in the art world with US$450m Salvator Mundi by Leonardo Da Vinci. This year, as The Value has learnt from a reliable source, Christie’s has secured the consignment of a 'holy grail' of classical Chinese painting. Titled Withered Tree and Strange Rock (unofficial translation), the painting was created by an acclaimed Chinese poet and painter Su Shi (1037-1101). It is expected to fetch in an excess of HK$450m (US$57.3m).

Self portrait by Su Dongpo

Su Shi, also known as Su Dongpo, was a Chinese writer, poet, painter, calligrapher from the Northern Song dynasty. Highly revered for his academic and artistic achievement, Su enjoyed great popularity in China, Japan, and other areas in the near vicinity. With regard to his paintings, very few examples are known to have survived after all these years. So far, there are only two to three authenticated paintings exist. One is the present painting to be offered at Christie’s, which has been held in private hands. One is Bamboo and Rock (xiaoxiang zhushi tu) in National Art Museum of China. It is reported that there is one more example in the National Palace Museum in Taipei (we reached out to the museum and inquired about the painting, but we still haven’t received a reply from them.)

According to our source, Christie’s has shown this painting to some collectors and specialists to confirm its authenticity. The painting is tentatively estimated at HK$450m. It has not yet decided whether the painting will be sold through an auction or a private sale but there is a high chance that the auction house opts for the latter one.

The black and white image of Withered Tree and Strange Rock documented in old record

Withered Tree and Strange Rock, measuring around 27 x 51 cm, was painted by Su Shi when he was a governor of Xuzhou. The composition of the work is simply. Placed on the right is a withered tree with branches resembling antlers and on the left is a strange rock in a shape echoing a snail. Unlike most classical Western paintings which seek resemblances in form, Chinese paintings purse spiritual resemblances.

Coloured Image of Withered Tree and Strange Rock documented in old record

It is also recorded in an old archive that Su Dongpo’s paintings were highly-sought after even during his time in the Song dynasty.

Su Dongpo’s Bamboo and Rock is now kept in the National Art Museum of China

Withered Tree and Strange Rock and Bamboo and Rock both formerly belonged to a collector in Shandong. Both works were then sold to a collector called Bai Jianfu, who later sold Bamboo and Rock to Deng Tuo (1912-1966), editor-in-chief of newspaper People's Daily. Whereas the Withered Tree and Strange Rock is reported to be sold to a Japanese collector while Bai was in Japan.

Withered Tree and Strange Rock (partial)

Withered Tree and Strange Rock (partial)

For more updates about the auction of this rare painting, please stay tuned with the Value.