Qi Baishi and Zhang Daqian works dominate a successful sale for China's modern masters at Christie's Hong Kong

This year at Christie’s Hong Kong Fine Chinese Modern and Contemporary Ink Paintings auction the works of several modern masters were up for sale. Qi Baishi (1863-1957), Zhang Daqian (1899-1983), Lai Shaoqi (1915-2000), and Wu Guanzhong (1919-2010), just to name a few that dominated the top lots.

These modern artists helped define the Chinese art scene from the end of the 1800s to the close of the 20th century with many being compared to their Western contemporaries. Their generation-defining works have traditionally done well in auctions in the past and this year was no different, with many not just reaching their expected estimations but surpassing them.

Combined the sale earned roughly HK$192 million (around US$24.6 million). This firmly exceeded the sale’s projected low estimate of HK$142.616 million (around US$18 million). Furthermore, out of the 205 lots that were for sale, 73 exceeded the high estimated price.

The sale itself featured various bidding wars and never-before-seen works. Collections that featured paintings once hidden from the public eye were finally brought into the limelight, many of which were the stars of this auction.

Lot 1154 | Qi Baishi (1863-1957) | Countryside Pleasures, an album of 24 leaves, ink/ink and colour on paper, framed  
Painted in: 1954
Dimensions: each leaf paper is 34 x 34 cm
Signed: Inscribed, 4 leaves signed, with 26 seals of the artist

  • Sold by Sotheby’s New York, Fine Chinese Paintings, 5 December 1991.

Dedicated to Lin Feng
Estimate: HK$10,000,000 – 15,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$11,500,000
Sold Price: HK$14,290,000 (around US$1.8 million)

This Qi Baishi 24-leaf painting featuring various plants and flowers triggered a bidding war between at least two bidders, one online and one in the auction room itself. The back-and-forth between these two bidders saw the online bidder, with the paddle number “3019” win the piece.

The piece displays Qi Baishi’s creative flexibility and his mastery of both brush and colour. Additionally, it is an accurate display of his style of work, as he became known for his depictions of fruits, flowers, and landscapes.

The piece follows in line with Qi Baishi’s more whimsical and creative works. Described as “playful,” this work came much later in Qi Baishi’s life having come out roughly when he would have been 90. This would have been during the greater heights of his creativity as he never stopped developing his technique or style throughout his lengthy career.

Qi Baishi started his career painting using a realistic technique, gongbi. However, he branched out from that to become known for more playful works that possibly arose from his time in the Shanghai School, which focused on merging Eastern and Western styles of art and culture.

At the time of the work’s creation, he was a highly esteemed artist who was widely celebrated and praised by the government in the 1950s, with them holding an exhibition of his work in Beijing in April 1954. His place and esteem within the broader Chinese art sphere were cemented with his election to the National People's Congress. 

Lot 1147 | Zhang Daqian (1899-1983) | Black Horse after Liu Yongnian, ink and colour on paper, framed scroll  
Painted in: 1945
Dimensions: 99 x 47.5 cm
Signed: Inscribed and Signed, with two seals of the artist

  • Originally acquired by Wang Anfu (1913-2005) and Liu Huanzeng (1908-1989)

Estimate: HK$12,000,000 – 20,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$10 million
Sold Price: HK$12,475,000 (around US$1.6 million)

Sold to a commission bidder for the hammer price of HK$10 million (around US$1.3 million), this lot was the second most expensive lot sold that day and the most expensive Zhang Daqian painting at the auction.

Out of the three Zhang Daqian works that sold at the auction this one came in the middle of his career. Following Zhang Daqian’s return from Dunhuang in 1943 he, for a brief period, painted horses up until the early 1950s. This particular one was painted in early 1945 in Chengdu, Sichuan province.

It is devoid of human presence instead it displays a horse drinking at the water’s edge while it gazes towards the viewer. The work is a triumph of the artist and represents their appreciation for artists that came before him. In this painting, he draws influence from the Northern Wei (386-585) and Tang (618-690/705-907) dynasties, which were famous for their equine artwork.

He also makes great use of mineral pigments to colour the work while he utilizes the leaves to add contrast and definition to the otherwise azure pasture. Additionally, the horse itself sports a detailed definition of its muscles and figure, a treatment that appears in a few other Zhang Daqian works, including Horse after Northern Wei Style also painted in 1945 and sold by Christie’s Hong Kong.

Zhang Daqian (1899-1983) | Horse After Northern Wei Style | Sold: HK$9.66m (around US$1.24m | Christie’s Hong Kong, 2017

Lot 1148 | Zhang Daqian (1899-1983) | Waterfall in Mountains, ink and colour on paper, framed scroll  
Painted in: 1967
Dimensions: 93.5 x 42.5 cm
Signed: Inscribed and Signed, with one seal of the artist

  • Sold by Christie’s Hong Kong, Fine 19th and 20th Century Chinese Paintings, 1 May 1994.

Estimate: HK$3,500,000 – 5,500,000
Hammer Price: HK$7,000,000
Sold Price: HK$8,820,000 (around US$1.13 million)

The bidding for the third most expensive Zhang Daqian work, at the auction, was some of the most intense of the day. It saw at least four bidders raise the price over twenty times with the main battle coming down to two telephone bidders. Eventually, it was Carmen Shek Cerne (Christie’s Hong Kong, Vice President, Head of Department, Chinese Paintings) winning the work for the bidder with the paddle number “8026.”

Out of the three big Zhang Daqian works this was painted the latest in his life. It would have come about the time he had left China. Before this, he had studied art since his youth and received his first commission as a teenager.

Throughout the 1920s he worked in Beijing, Suzhou, and Shanghai and began visiting more rural parts of the country, which is where his appreciation for nature grew, possibly some of the earliest inspiration for this specific work.

However, due to the turmoil caused by the Chinese Civil War restarting, he left the country. He first left for Macau before travelling through Asia and then living for a period in Latin America. Eventually, he settled in California in 1967. His work started to be seen beyond China with him holding a solo exhibition at Stanford University, held the year he arrived in the States, garnering a thousand visitors at its opening reception.

His fame as an artist grew rapidly in the West as in the late 1950s he was asked to hold exhibitions in the Louvre and Guimet Museum in Paris. It would be there that he met the Spanish painter Picasso. The two met and exchanged pleasantries, and remained in contact. Both were considered the preeminent painters of East and West, respectively and this meeting, in 1957 was considered as a summit between the two artists. 

Zhang Daqian (left) and Pablo Picasso (right) pictured together in Nice, France in 1956

Waterfall in Mountains was painted while Daqian was on the move between continents, and found itself exhibited in the National Palace in Taipei, Taiwan in 1967, incidentally, the same country where Daqian would settle in 1978.

The work is also not the first where Zhang Daqian depicts waterfalls in the mountains with Waterfall at Lu Mountain being sold in 2015 by Christie’s Hong Kong and Viewing the Waterfall also being sold by Christie's Hong Kong, both for substantial amounts. 

On the right: Zhang Daqian | Waterfall at Lu Mountain | Sold: HK$1.84m (around US$235,000), Christie’s Hong Kong, 2015| On the Left: Zhang Daqian | Viewing the Waterfal | Sold: HK$64.2m (around US$8.2m) | Christie’s Hong Kong, 2018

Lot 1051 | Zhang Daqian (1899-1983) | The Tibetan Dancer, ink and colour on gold-flecked paper, framed scroll
Painted in: unclear but possibly in the early 1940s.
Dimensions: 119 x 59.2 cm
Signed: Inscribed and Signed, with three seals of the artist

  • Acquired by the family of the present owner in the 1950s

Estimate: HK$6,000,000 – 8,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$5,200,000
Sold Price: HK$6,552,000 (around US$838,000)

This lot was won by Michael Xie (Christie’s Beijing, Associate Vice President, Senior Specialist) for his client on the phone, paddle number “8138.” It was the third-highest-earning Zhang Daqian work sold at the auction and a divergence from his landscape and nature paintings.

In the 1940s Zhang Daqian led a small group including several Buddhist painters to Dunhuang. The desert city in an oasis is well known for the nearby Mogao Caves. These caves are filled with over 121,000 meters worth of Buddhist frescos and statues, which Daqian aimed to paint replicas of.

During this period Daqian travelled to see the Lantern Festival in Qinghai and while there he became entranced with the dresses and makeup that the various groups from Tibet and Mongolia were wearing. During this time, he composed a poem consisting of 112 characters to a Tibetan lady and witnessed banquets and festivals which would have inspired this work. 

As stated prior the composition of this work differs greatly from other Zhang Daqian works, specifically due to its subject matter. The Tibetan lady is adorned in detailed jewelry and accessories, while Zhang Daqian also clearly took great effort to paint the patterns of her dress including the fur linings.

The pose the lady strikes is thought to be inspired by the Buddhist paintings found in the Mogao Caves as she holds a wine cup something Zhang Daqian would have seen at a banquet or festival.

Lot 1067 | Lin Fengmian (1900-1991) | The Four Beauties, ink and colour on paper, framed scroll
Painted in: 1980
Dimensions: 69 x 69 cm
Signed: Inscribed and Signed, with one seal of the artist

  • Commissioned directly from the artist and passed through descent

Note: This painting is dedicated to Zhenbang (Dr. Wong Chun Bong)
Estimate: HK$4,000,000 – 6,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$7,000,000
Sold Price: HK$8,820,000 (around US$ 1.12 million)

This rare lot was won by a telephone bidder, paddle number "8371," by Vicky Liu (Christie's Beijing, Associate Vice President, Specialist). Earning a million Hong Kong Dollars over its high estimate, it became the third best-selling lot of the sale. The Four Beauties, by modern Chinese artist Lin Fengmian, is an exceptional work that truly demonstrates the artist’s skill with composition and colours. The focus of this work, women, is a common and successful theme in his work.

On the right: Lin Fengmian | Opera Figures | Sold: HK$6.25m (around US$800,000), Christie’s Hong Kong, 2021| On the Left: Lin Fengmian | Opera Figures from the Magic Lotus Lantern | Sold: HK$6.85m (around US$876,000) | Christie’s Hong Kong, 2021

Across all these paintings of women, Lin Fengmian paid close attention to the colouring of traditional garb, their composure and posture, and their gazes. This gives Fengmian’s work a level of dynamism and movement to them as they somewhat seem to come alive with movement. These figures then blend with the background, which on the Four Beauties is extremely detailed featuring numerous objects that add a level of depth to the painting.  

This painting in particular, along with lot 1066, a Lin Fengmian landscape painting titled Goose Flying Over Lotus Pond, was the private property of Dr. Wong Chu Bong (1942-2019), the person to which the painting is dedicated, Dr. Wong was a well-respected general practitioner and citizen in Hong Kong.

He managed to meet Lin Fengmian through Fengmian’s cousin Dr. Ling Po in the 1970s. At the time Lin Fengmian had endured a long period of hardship in mainland China. Having his paintings destroyed by the turbulent Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) and the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).

It would not be until 1977 that Lin Fengmian left the country. He ended up settling in Hong Kong where in need of financial assistance he produced Dr. Wong’s two paintings for him as commissioned pieces of work. The doctor allowed Lin Fengmian to paint whatever he wanted and as a show of gratitude for the doctor’s support dedicated the works to him through an inscription on the painting.

Since their inception in 1980, the two paintings have hung in Dr. Wong’s home for four decades. Following Dr. Wong’s passing in 2019, they have transferred ownership to his wife, and are now available for the public to view and purchase.

Lot 1024 | Lai Shaoqi (1915-2000) | Mountains in the Clouds, ink and colour on paper
Painted in: 1981
Dimensions: 41.5 x 368.5 cm
Signed: Inscribed and Signed, with five seals of the artist

  • Part of the M.K. Lau collection

Estimate: HK$1,000,000 – 2,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$5,000,000
Sold Price: HK$6,300,000 (around US$806,000)

The bidding opened on this lot at HK$950,000 and there was fierce bidding between various telephone bidders and their Christie’s representatives. After nearly fifteen minutes of bidding the loot was eventually won by Dr. Man Kung (Christie’s Hong Kong, Specialist), for his client with the paddle number “8089.”

This bidding war would push the price of the painting just beyond three times its original high estimate and make it the fifth best-selling painting of the day. Truly its imposing size, its excellent composition, and the painter’s background and success in other auctions were well received by bidders.

Lai Shaoqi was originally more focused on woodcarvings until later in his life in the 1950s when he began to work on more paintings and calligraphy. This work bears strong similarities to some of the artist’s other landscape works, many of which have done strongly in auctions in the past, including the one below which sold for double its high estimate.

Lai Shaoqi (1915-2000) | Red Forest (Hainan Island) | Sold: HK$525,000 (around US$67,134)| Christie’s Hong Kong, 2021

Other Highlighted Lots:

Lot 1047 | Zhang Daqian (1899-1983) | Fishing under Autumn Peaks in the Style of Yang Sheng, ink and colour on paper, framed scroll
Painted in: unclear but possibly in the 1940s.
Dimensions: 85 x 43 cm
Signed: Inscribed and Signed, with two seals of the artist

  • Fine Zhang Daqian Paintings from the Family Collection of Chong Fung Kuen

Estimate: HK$3,000,000 – 5,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$5,200,000
Sold Price: HK$6,048,000 (around US$733,000)

Lot 1069 | Wu Guanzhong (1919-2010)| Yellow River, ink and colour on paper, mounted scroll
Painted in: 1981
Dimensions: 68 x 137 cm
Signed: Inscribed and Signed, with two seals of the artist

  • Acquired by the present owner from Soobin Art Gallery Pte Ltd, Singapore, in 1993.

Estimate: HK$4,000,000 – 6,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$4,400,000
Sold Price: HK$5,554,000 (around US$709,000)

Lot 1019 | Cao Jun (B. 1966)| Sound of Spring, ink and colour on paper, framed scroll
Painted in: 2020
Dimensions: 108 x 78 cm
Signed: Inscribed and Signed, with four seals of the artist

  • N/A

Estimate: HK$1,500,000 – 1,800,000
Hammer Price: HK$4,200,000
Sold Price: HK$5,292,000 (around US$677,000)

Lot 1050 | Zhang Daqian (1899-1983)| Temple in the Mountains, ink and colour on paper, framed scroll
Painted in: 1966
Dimensions: 52 x 40 cm
Signed: Inscribed and Signed, with one seal of the artist

  • Acquired from California collector Wil Fountain by the present owner in 2006.

Estimate: HK$2,800,000 – 3,800,000
Hammer Price: HK$4,200,000
Sold Price: HK$5,292,000 (around US$677,000)

Auction Details:

Auction House: Christie’s Hong Kong
Sale: Fine Chinese Modern and Contemporary Ink Paintings
Date: 31 May 2024
Number of lots: 205
Lots Sold: 175
Lots Sold Above Estimate: 73
Lots Sold Within Estimate: 73
Lost Sold Below Estimate: 29
Lots Unsold: 30
Sale Rate: 85.37%
Sale Total: HK$192,327,740 (around US$18 million)