Sanyu’s Goldfish Fetches HK$146m - Records All-time High for His Animal-themed Works

Hailed as “Chinese Matisse”, Sanyu is highly regarded in the modern art market in recent years, with two of his three most favored subjects - female nudes and flowers, breaking one new auction record after another. This autumn, it’s the turn for one of his animal-themed works.

Tonight was the night as Goldfish was sold for a whopping HK$146m (US$18.8m) at Christie's Hong Kong, a record-high for the artist's animal-themed works. 

Immediately followed the auction house's Modern and Contemporary Art Evening Sale was the stand-alone, single lot evening auction, dedicated to this highly anticipated work of Goldfish by Sanyu.

Christie's now holds all three auction records for the artist, with Five Nudes being sold for HK$303m last November, soon followed by the HK$191m record for a Sanyu’s still life, White Chrysanthemum in a Blue and White Jardiniere this July.


Lot 800 | Sanyu (Chang Yu, 1895-1966), Goldfish

signed in Chinese and signed ‘SANYU’ (lower right)

oil on canvas

73.8 x 50.2 cm

Painted in the 1930s-1940s


  • Robert Frank, New York, USA

  • Sotheby's Taipei, Robert Frank’s Sanyu, October 19, 1997, lot 9

  • Yageo Collection, Taiwan

  • Sotheby’s Hong Kong 40th Anniversary Evening Sale, October 5, 2013, lot 7

  • Acquired from the above sale by the present owner

Estimate: HK$120,000,000 - 180,000,000

Hammer price: HK$146,000,000

Price realized: HK$170,170,000


Georgina Hilton, the auctioneer of the night, opened the sale at HK$90m


(Lower right) Vickie Sek, Chairman, Jewellery, Asia, successfully won the precious work for her client


After 11 bids from at least six interested bidders, Goldfish realized HK$170m after premium, about 22% higher than its pre-sale low estimate, to become the top lot of the entire night. Winning the bidding war was a bidder on the phone, with the paddle number 8162, represented by Vickie Sek, Chairman, Jewellery, Asia.

The night was an absolute success thanks to the high-caliber work of this Chinese-French artist, whose record for his animal series was HK$79.4m in a 2017 auction, followed by the tremendous success achieved by his nudes and still life works. Now with the outstanding lot sold, Christie’s has set yet another record for the artist.


Five Nudes, sold for HK$303m last November


 White Chrysanthemum in a Blue and White Jardiniere, sold for over HK$191m this July


Sanyu was among the first generation of Chinese painters to study in Europe. Arriving in Paris in 1921, Sanyu spent most of his time in the French art hub, where he was deeply inspired by the Parisian abstractionism. Conflating the fluidity of Chinese ink painting and Fauvist expression, his distinctive style is highly recognized both in the art scene and auction market.

Sanyu was a romantic painter who didn’t shy away from his love for animals remembered from home. Also thanks to his dad being an animal painter, it was natural that birds, fish, among other animals are frequently featured in his works. 

Though he created about 300 oil paintings in his lifetime, of which only 11 feature fish as subjects, four of those are in the collection of the National Museum of History in Taipei, leaving this presenting lot such a rare gem in the market.


Sanyu (1901-1966) Goldfish | oil on canvas | 73.8 x 50.2 cm


Closer looks at Goldfish


Goldfish is the painter’s only work in his oeuvre to feature eight goldish as the primary subject and in such exquisite detail. What’s on display is the way Sanyu presents the dynamic, moving objects through the style of still life genre. 

In Chinese culture, the number “eight” symbolizes wealth, and “goldfish” carries the connotations of abundance in life and prosperity. The white tablecloth is decorated with a number of auspicious Chinese symbols, such as luck and “shou (壽),” the symbol of health and longevity. 

Sanyu’s art owes a great deal to his training back in China. While Goldfish exemplifies the Sichuan-born artist’s cultural belonging and sentiments, his brushwork, use of colors, and spatial treatments all show influences of Western modern art. The realism of the goldfish swimming in a transparent glass tank is of course top-notch, yet the straightforward lines against the pop of two dominant colors of bright-coral and white reminds spectators of Mark Rothko, an American abstract artist known for his color fields paintings.


Sanyu (left) and his friend Robert Frank (right) in Paris in the 1960s


The first owner of Goldfish was Robert Frank (1924-2019), Sanyu’s lifelong friend, and one of the most influential photographers in the 20th century. Frank bought all the works by the artist at one of his less-than-impressive exhibitions in Manhattan. The art pieces all remained in his collection for almost half a century. It wasn’t until 1997 when they were sold at an auction to raise funds for Yale University’s Andrea Frank Foundation Sanyu Scholarship Fund. 

Goldfish was sold in a Sotheby’s sale seven years ago, at HK$67,320,000 after premium.


Auction Summary

Auction House: Christie’s Hong Kong

Sale: Sanyu: Goldfish

Date: December 2, 2020

Lots offered: 1

Sold: 1

Total Sale: HK$170,170,000