HK$303m Record-Setting Sanyu’s Five Nudes Reigns Supreme in Hong Kong Auction 2019

Five Nudes, Sanyu’s largest painting featuring female nudes, was just sold for HK$303m (US$38.72m) at Christie’s Contemporary Art Evening Sale in Hong Kong after an intense 10-minute bidding war. The painting set a new auction record for the artist barely one month since its previous one, indicating a shift in the Asian market from the enthusiasm for the abstract master Zao Wou-Ki to the rising popularity of Sanyu.

Five Nudes set a new auction record for Sanyu

Five Nudes was hammered down for a whopping HK$266m

Nu held the previous auction record for Sanyu when it was sold for HK$197m this October

Sanyu and his friend Robert Frank (a renowned photographer)

Sanyu (1895-1966) was hailed as ‘the Chinese Matisse’. Sanyu’s paintings began with floral motifs and culminated with female nudes. In the 1920s, he went to the city with fellow Chinese art students – among them Lin Fengmian, Wu Dayu and Xu Beihong. Together they wrote a glorious chapter for Chinese émigré artists in France. By the 1940s and 1950s, Sanyu had become revered in Paris, by Wu Guanzhong, Zhang Daqian, Zao Wou-Ki, and Chu Teh-Chun, among others. Measuring 120 x 175cm, 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 thirties, nor an overly figurative realism. The bold black lines create a naïve, primitive appeal unique to Sanyu’s late works.”

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. A more classic example could date back to Opening of the Fifth Seal by El Greco.

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

La Danse (I) (early 1909) by Henri Matisse. Collection of The Museum of Modern Art

Opening of the Fifth Seal by El Greco. Collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Five Nudes by Sanyu

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.

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 - which held Sanyu's previous auction record - 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.

Taiwanese tycoon Pierre Chen

A closer look at Five Nudes

A closer look at Five Nudes

A closer look at Five Nudes

A closer look at Five Nudes

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 (US$25.3m) Nu. In less than one month, Five Nudes regained the title as Sanyu's most expensive artwork after selling for HK$303m (US$38.72m), which further pushed the price up to the benchmark of HK$300m and beyond.

Despite the uncertainty in both Asian economy and Hong Kong political situation, Francis Belin, President of Christie’s Asia, was very confident that Five Nudes would fetch a high price.

During an interview with us, Francis Belin said: “The indication that we have from our last sales: the one we had in Shanghai a few weeks ago with a very strong sell-through rate. The Asia Week in New York, more than a third of the buyers were coming from Greater China. Mid-season sales that we had in here or selling exhibitions in Shanghai, all indicate that buying from Asian collectors remains very strong. That’s why we are so confident to bring this masterpiece to the market. The low estimate for the painting is HK$250m. We think this painting will sell very well.

Francis Belin, President of Christie’s Asia

Christie’s 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale took place on 23 November, kicking off the Hong Kong autumn auction week. The auctioneer started the bidding of Five Nudes at HK$190m and received the next bid at HK$200m, a price which is high enough to break the previous auction record for the artist. Yet, it was only the prologue of a fierce bidding battle. Five Nudes elicited bids from six telephone bidders, who pushed the price to HK$250m in a blink.

As the bidding continued, a new room bidder intensified the stiff competition by offering HK$265m. The telephone bidder represented by Charlotte Liu, Christie’s Global Managing Director of Asian and World Art, fought back with HK$266m, a winning bid at which the hammered was brought down. The painting was sold for HK$303m after premium to this telephone bidder with a paddle no. 8808. It is the highest price fetched across various auctions in Hong Kong throughout 2019.

The gentleman in the room was the under bidder

Five Nudes was sold to Charlotte Liu’s telephone client

Please stay tuned for other highlights at the 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale, including Kim Whanki’s diptych that sold for more than HK$100m, a record for the most expensive Korean work of art.

Sanyu. Five Nudes

Lot no.: 7
Created in: 1950-1959
Signed lower right Yu in Chinese and SANYU in French
Size: 120 x 172cm
Provenance (consolidated by The Value):

  • Hôtel Drouot, Paris, France, 1966
  • Yves Bideau, Paris, France
  • Jean-Claude Riedel, Paris, France
  • Eric Edwards, Paris, France
  • Anon. Sale, Sotheby’s Taipei, 17 October 1993, Lot 18
  • Yageo Collection, Taiwan
  • Anon. Sale, Ravenel Hong Kong, 30 May 2011, Lot 19 (sold for HK$128,320,000, the then auction record for world’s most expensive Chinese oil painting)
  • Acquired from the above sale by the present owner


  • Taipei, Taiwan, Taipei Fine Arts Museum, China-Paris, Seven Chinese Painters Who Studied in France, 1918-1960, 26 March - 26 June 1988.
  • Taipei, Taiwan, Tamshui Center of Arts and Culture, Sanyu, 18 August – 4 September 1994.
  • Dresden, Germany, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Madonna Meets Mao, 31 October 2008 – 11 January 2009.
  • Hong Kong, Hong Kong Convention Centre, Treasures of the Century - Masters of 20th Century Chinese Art, 2-7 October 2010.

Estimate: HK$250,000,000
Hammer price: HK$266,000,000
Price realised: HK$303,985,000

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