A rare gold screen by Zhang Daqian, 'Picasso of the East', estimated to sell for over US$25.5m

As this year marks Sotheby's 50th anniversary in Asia, the house has brought together a strong line-up of Chinese art to its Spring Sales to celebrate the important milestone year.

For the Chinese painting department, the star lot is a fresh-to-market rare gold Japanese screen embellished with pink lotus, created by Chinese master Zhang Daqian in 1973 – the very year in which Sotheby's first set foot in Asia. 

Estimated to sell for in excess of HK$200 million (US$25.5 million), it carries the highest estimate ever placed on a Chinese painting at Sotheby's. 

Zhang Daqian | Pink Lotuses on Gold Screen, Splashed ink and coulour on gold paper, two-panel screen
Created in 1973
170 x 176 cm
Expected to fetch in excess of HK$200 million (US$25.5 million)

Auction House: Sotheby's Hong Kong
Auction Date: Between 1 and 8 April 2023
Preview Date: 1 - 7 April 2023
Venue: Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, Hall 1

A household name in China, Zhang Daqian is not only amongst the most popular Asian painters, but also one of the best-selling artists in the auction market, whose works command enormous prices internationally.

In 2011, he surpassed market heavyweights like Andy Warhol and Pablo Picasso and made it to the top of the list of the world’s highest grossing artist, with annual total sales reaching a grand US$554.5 million. Since then, the artist has continued to ride high in the top ten.

For many years, the global appetite has largely leaned towards his magnificent colour-splashed landscapes, which account for four of his five most valuable works at auction. That dominance, however, ended last year when his intricately detailed scroll, Landscape after Wang Ximeng, sold for a staggering US$47 million and set the artist’s auction record.

  1. Landscape after Wang Ximeng, Ink and colour on silk | Sold: HK$370,495,000 (US$47 million), Sotheby's Hong Kong, 2022
  2. Peach Blossom Spring, Splashed ink and colour on paper | Sold: HK$270,680,000 (US$34.7 million), Sotheby's Hong Kong, 2016
  3. Autumn Morning, Splashed ink and colour on paper | Sold: RMB 195,500,000 (US$30.7 million), China Guardian Beijing, 2021
  4. Mist at Dawn, Splashed ink and colour on paper | Sold: HK$214,631,000 (US$27.6 million), Sotheby's Hong Kong, 2021
  5. Temple at the Mountain Peak, Splashed ink and colour on gold paper | Sold: HK$209,100,000 (US$27.1 million), Christie's Hong Kong, 2021

Peach Blossom Spring | Sold: HK$270,680,000 (US$34.7 million), Sotheby's Hong Kong, 2016

Landscape after Wang Ximeng | Sold: HK$370,495,000 (US$47 million), Sotheby's Hong Kong, 2022

Carmen Ip | Head of Chinese Paintings Department at Sotheby's

In the Western art world, Zhang has been hailed as “The Picasso of the East”. While the two twentieth-century masters' painterly styles are distinctly different, they are similar in that they are both chameleon artists adept at a variety of styles, highly innovative yet deeply rooted in traditions, and prodigious in artistic output.

Born in 1899 to an artistic family, Zhang was a gifted artist from a young age. As many artists do, he began by studying and imitating the works of China's ancient masters, which gave him a firm foundation in a broad range of classical Chinese ink techniques. 

Following his first trip to Japan learning weaving and dyeing, he became a world traveller, journeying from Asia to Americas and continental Europe. In his sojourns all over the world, he absorbed a great variety of artistic influence – most significantly the ancient grotto art in the temple caves of Dunhuang in northwest China. There he spent nearly three years making copies of the Buddhist murals, figures rendered in vibrant blue-greens and red – colours that featured prominently in his free brushwork abstract landscapes. 

In 1956 while he was in Europe, as his eyesight deteriorated, he began to experiment with splashed ink and colour on paper, a technique that minimize the need for precise details in his paintings. With rich, dark ink and mineral-based pigments, he re-interpreted the charm of traditional Chinese paintings with a hint of abstract or semi-abstract style often seen in Western modern art, which opened a new chapter in Chinese art, leading him to be called "The One in 500 years" in China.

Zhang Daqian is one the most important Chinese artists of the twentieth century

Zhang Daqian met Pablo Picasso in Spain in 1957

Details of Pink Lotuses on Gold Screen

While Zhang Daqian is well-known for his ability to juggle virtually every genres of Chinese painting – from flowers and birds to figures and landscapes – lotus as one of the artist's favourite flowers has remained a recurring theme in his oeuvre, one that he had painted throughout his artistic career spanning more than 60 years.

In traditional Chinese culture, lotus is revered as a symbol of purity and nobleness: their roots are mired in the muddy earth, yet their blossoms emerge from the water with refined beauty and perfect cleanliness. 

Zhang Daqian once settled in California

Details of Pink Lotuses on Gold Screen

Details of Pink Lotuses on Gold Screen

Painted in 1973 in California, Pink Lotuses on Gold Screen stands as an outstanding demonstration of both Zhang's mastery of skills and the creative energy of the later stage of his career. Liberating himself from the fine lines and keenly observed details that had so enriched the art of his early years, here, he focuses on atmosphere and color rather than the depictions of specific scenes. 

Layered by different intensities of splashed ink, the dark lotus leaves, though dominated half of the screen, are surprisingly soft and mellow, going harmoniously with the composition to conjure a vivid view of a sumptuous watery lotus pond.

Looking closer to the splendid gold screen, within magnificence unfolds a delicate tenderness. Amidst rich layers of ink, the flourishing lotuses reveal themselves through a bluish-green nebula of saturated color, elegantly radiating a sense of beauty and purity.

In contrast to the large blotches of various shades of gray, the opaque-pink lotus petal are outlined with light ink, the seemingly effortless yet precise brushstrokes which give visible presence to the graceful lotus. 

Details of Pink Lotuses on Gold Screen

Details of Pink Lotuses on Gold Screen

Six Panel Gold Screen of Splashed Lotuses | Sold: HK$20.2 million (around US$2.6 million), Sotheby's Hong Kong

Meticulous with his choice of painting materials, Zhang Daqian spared no expense in acquiring exquisite brushes, pigments, ink and paper from around the world. 

For the present lot, the folding screen was made in Japan and later mounted with gold paper, which is already of great value itself – not to mention the enormous logistics cost of bringing the fragile screen all the way from Japan to California more than fifty years ago. 

While Zhang rarely executes on folding screens – less than ten examples are known – a comparable screen with lotus as the subject was sold at Sotheby's Hong Kong in 2002 for a then-record of HK$20.2 million (US$2.6 million). Measuring 168 x 369 cm, that painting, Six Panel Gold Screen of Splashed Lotuses, is similar in height to the present screen but nearly doubles in width. 

Both splashed-colour paintings, the present two-panel screen is much more subtle in the use of colours, whereas the six-panel work sees a luxurious use of azurite and malachite pigments, giving the lotus leaves a rich vibrancy against the lustre of gold. 

As for whether Pink Lotuses on Gold Screen could break another record at auction, it remains to be unveiled in early April.