Aesop’s Fable-Inspired Painting by Father of Modern Chinese Art Xu Beihong to Fetch in Excess of US$45m at Hong Kong Auction

Chinese Realism master Xu Beihong’s Slave and Lion, is going under the hammer in a single-lot sale offered by Christie’s, immediately after the marquee 20th and 21st Century Art Evening Sale in Hong Kong on May 24.

The phenomenal painting is expected to fetch between HK$350m and HK$450m (US$45m - 58m) - the highest estimate placed on an Asian artwork at auction. If the price realized falls within the range, not only will it become a new record for the artist, it could eclipse the records of Su Shi's Wood and Rock (hammer price: HK$410m/ US$52.8m) and Zao Wou-ki's abstract Juin-Octobre 1985 (hammer price: HK$450m/ US$58m), to become the most valuable Asian art sold by Christie’s, and the most expensive oil painting publicly sold in Asia. 

Xu Beihong (1895-1953), Slave and Lion
Painted in 1924
Oil on canvas
Signed and dated “Beihong; Jiazi” in Chinese (lower left)
Dimensions: 123.3 x 152.8 cm
Provenance:  (Organized by The Value)

  • Private collection, Singapore
  • Christie’s Hong Kong, November 26, 2006 (price realized: HK$53,880,000/ US$6,943,000)

Estimate: HK$350,000,000 - 450,000,000 (US$45,000,000 - 58,000,000)


Rooted from ancient Roman mythology and Aesop’s Fables, the present painting by Xu portrays a Roman slave named Androcles, who tried to escape and was captured by his cruel master. He was sentenced to be thrown into the Colosseum, to be executed by the lion.

Yet to everyone’s surprise, as a requite, the lion did not attack Androcles as it recognized the man as the one who once removed a thorn stuck in its wounded paw when the slave took shelter in a cave a few years ago.

The tale of Androcles befriending a lion captures the essence of humanity and our intrinsic nature towards compassion and redemption for all. It also became the inspiration for the 1912 play Androcles and the Lion, written by Irish author George Bernard Shaw.

Closer looks at Slave and Lion


Xu’s take on the story is widely considered one of the most important oil paintings in Chinese art history. The lion in the painting is wounded and in need of help, yet remains dignified, righteous and proud, symbolizing the Chinese people’s spirit, while the fearless slave serves as an emblem of the nation.

The artist spent over a decade in Europe for his art training, which began with making convincing copies of works by such Baroque masters as Jacob Jordaens and Rembrandt, to spending his days in the zoo during his stay in Berlin, where he developed a strong penchant for accurately sketching every move of a lion. Not only did his keen observation take his works to a new level of verisimilitude, but to capture the various essence of the beast. 

“I love to paint lions because I like their calm demeanor. I have seen them smile, I have touched them in proximity, I have heard them roar angrily, and I have watched them dance.” Xu once said. 

Xu Beihong, Wounded Lion (1938) | ink and color on paper
Collection of Xu Beihong Memorial Museum

Xu Beihong, Join Forces in Tokyo (1943) | ink and color on paper
Collection of Xu Beihong Memorial Museum


Executed in 1924, at the pivotal point of Xu’s creative career, the present work is his largest oil painting still in private hands, also one of the only six thematic oil paintings ever appeared on the market, according to Christie’s.

The present work last went to the auction block in a Christie’s Hong Kong sale in 2006 and realized HK$53.9m (US$6.9m), a record at the time for a Chinese oil painting. The work also comes with a sterling provenance - a study on paper for the painting currently resides in the Xu Beihong Memorial Museum in Beijing.


Xu Beihong (1895 - 1953)

A sketch of Slave and Lion, painted in 1924 | Xu Beihong Memorial Museum


Xu is best known for his Chinese ink paintings of animals, with emphasis on horses and birds, his works often express rich sentiment through symbolism. Meaning buried in poetry is vividly transformed into metaphors personified in the protagonists of his paintings. 

The Jiangsu-born Chinese modern art master relocated to Paris in 1919 for his artistic quest and returned to China in 1927. His expenditure across Europe exposed him to the Western-style realism, which often peeks through from the artist's bravura handling of brush and ink. He is also one of the most influential artists of the 20th century and a pioneering figure in modern art education in China.

Xu Beihong, Cultivation on the Peaceful Land (1951) | 150 x 250 cm
Sold for CNY266.8m (US$41.9m), Poly Beijing, December 2011


The artist’s current record was set in 2011, when his ink and color on paper work, titled Cultivation on the Peaceful Land was sold for CNY266.8m (US$41.9m).

Some of the most expensive Asian paintings sold at auction include:

Wu Bin, Ten Views of a Lingbi Rock | RMB 512,900,000 | Beijing Poly, October 2020

Zao Wou-ki, Juin-Octobre 1985 | HK$510,371,000 | Sotheby’s Hong Kong, Sep 2018

Su Shi, Wood and Rock | HK$463,600,000 | Christie’s Hong Kong, Nov 2018

Ren Renfa, Five Inebriated Princes Riding Home | HK$306,551,000 | Sotheby’s Hong Kong, Oct 2020

Preview: (by appointment)

Shanghai | April 28-29, 2021
Venue: Ampire Building, No. 97 Yuanmingyuan Road, Shanghai, China
Hong Kong | May 21-24, 2021
Venue: Convention Hall, Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, No. 1 Harbour Road, Wanchai, Hong Kong

Auction Details:

Auction house: Christie’s Hong Kong
Sale: Legacy: Xu Beihong's Slave and Lion
Date: May 24, 2021 | 7:30pm
Venue: Convention Hall, Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, No. 1 Harbour Road, Wanchai, Hong Kong