Sanyu’s Five Nudes Unveiled in Hong Kong, Estimated to Fetch HK$250m

Five Nudes, Sanyu’s largest painting featuring female nudes, was unveiled at Christie’s in Hong Kong today. Before the unveiling, the auction house provided little information except that it is “a rare masterpiece by Sanyu” and it carries "the highest auction estimate for any work to be offered in Asia in 2019".

The painting will go under the hammer at Christie’s Contemporary Art Evening Sale on 23 November and is expected to fetch HK$250m (US$31.87m), a new auction record for Sanyu. If the painting is hammered down for price within the estimate region, it will be the most expensive work of art sold at auction in Hong Kong in 2019.

Five Nudes is not only the largest female nude painting Sanyu ever created, but also the one featuring the greatest number of figures within a single composition. As described by art historian Chen Yanfeng in his book San Yu - Overseas Chinese Fine Arts Series, “The number of nude paintings Sanyu created after World War II are few, and in the entire world there are no more than ten such works. Five Nudes is the only large work painted around 1955; the deep red and bright yellow background illuminates the pale skin of the figures, who pose seductively as “muses”, with neither the exaggerated proportions of the figures Sanyu painted in the thiries, nor an overly figurative realism. The bold black lines create a naïve, primitive appeal unique to Sanyu’s late works.”

Sanyu’s last nude painting Nu was recently sold at auction in Hong Kong for HK$197m (US$25.11m), setting a new auction for the artist. As for the most expensive work of art sold at auction this year in Hong Kong, a Qianlong falangcai pouch-shaped glass vase was sold for HK$207m (US$26.4m) after premium. The vase formerly belonged to distinguished collectors like Joseph Lau and Robert Tsao.

Francis Belin, President of Christie's Asia

We interviewed Francis Belin, President of Christie's Asia, and Evelyn Lin, Head of Department, Asian 20th Century & Contemporary Art to talk about this painting. Please stay tuned for the interview. So how rare is Five Nudes? We did some research about it.

Measuring 120 x 175cm, Five Nudes was created between 1950 and 1959. It’s the largest currently known female nude oil painting by the artist, and also the one depicting the biggest number of nude women in one single opus. The earliest record of the painting’s provenance traced back to 1966 in Hôtel Drouot, Paris. Since then it was kept in the private hands of several Paris collectors, among them include the legendary dealer and collector Jean-Claude Riedel who made tremendous contribution in promoting Sanyu. In 1977, Riedel organised a Sanyu exhibition in his gallery. Nu was chosen as the cover image of the invitation to the show at the time.

In 1993, Five Nudes was up for auction as the cover lot at Sotheby’s Taipei and was acquired by Taiwanese tycoon Pierre Chen, the founder and Chief Executive Officer of Yageo Corporation, for a price within the region of NT$4m (about US$130,000). It became part of the collection of Yageo Foundation.

The painting reappeared in the market again at Ravenel Hong Kong in 2011 and sold for HK$128m (NT$475m/ US$16m). Not only did it break the auction record for Sanyu, but also set the new auction record for the world’s most expensive Chinese oil painting. Five Nudes held the artist’s record for more than eight years until the record was recently replaced by the HK$198m Nu.

Sanyu was hailed as the “Chinese Matisse”

Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) by Pablo Picasso | The Museum of Modern Art

Nude is a popular theme in art creation. The great masters of classical and modern Western painting usually liked to depict nudes in reclining or horizontal positions. In contrast with the customary sitting or reclining positions, women depicted in Five Nudes are all standing up. Other noteworthy exceptions include Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) by Pablo Picasso and La Danse (I) (early 1909) by Henri Matisse.

Five Nudes shows Sanyu’s typical depiction of women: big, tall, voluptuous but at the same time tantalizingly casual and nonchalant. Their shapes are slightly distorted to accentuate the lower halves of their bodies, making them ooze with feminine sexuality. This painting also features two other Sanyu’s signature motifs: animals and flowers, which can be found next to the nudes at the bottom of the work. It is a rare painting that incorporated with the main subject matters that Sanyu often touched upon throughout his life.

Sanyu. Five Nudes

Created in: 1950-1959
Signed lower right Yu in Chinese and SANYU in French
Size: 120 x 175 cm
Estimate: HK$250,000,000

Auction house: Christie’s Hong Kong
Sale: 20th Century and Contemporary Art Evening Sale
Sale date: 23 November 2019