Liu Ye’s “Smoke” Painting Sells for Record HK$52.18m at Sotheby’s Hong Kong

A new auction record was set for Liu Ye by his monumental painting Smoke from 2001-2002. The painting was sold for HK$52.18m (US$6.65m) at a single owner sale Moutarderie Nationale: The Gillion Crowet Collection at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong.

Smoke becomes Liu Ye’s most valuable work of art ever auctioned

Liu Ye

Smoke is the first painting from a trinity of epic crimson-hued horizontal canvases from 2001-2002, the second of which resides in the esteemed M+ Sigg Collection and the third in an eminent private collection after fetching the artist’s auction record in 2013.

Born in 1964, Liu Ye grew up in an artistic family: his father wrote children’s fairy tales and his mother was a language teacher. During the Cultural Revolution his parents hid all their books, which Liu Ye found and read in secret, spending quiet hours enthralled by illustrations from foreign lands. Liu Ye once remarked: “I grew up in a world that was covered in red – the red sun, the red flag, the red scarves.” Yet, for Liu Ye, and for the children of his generation, red was less the colour of an authoritarian government than the colour of childhood per se.

A close up at Smoke

Unique to the present work is the looming red sun emblazoned upon the centre, edging out all notions of time and space, evoking René Magritte’s celebrated image of Le Banquet and its ambiguous treatment of night and day. However, in the intoxicating crimson cosmos of Liu Ye’s Smoke, the distinctions between night and day, sunrise and sunset, and fear or euphoria, are rendered moot. Instead, the scorching saturation of fiery colour aspires towards the absolute freedom of reductive abstraction. Emanating a rich alchemy of tonal ranges, the riveting red sky in Smoke evokes a mythic state of genesis, or equally a threat of apocalyptic tragedy.

Estimated at HK$25m-35m, Smoke was the cover lot of this single owner sale which offered the prestigious assemblage of the distinguished Gillion Crowet collection. After the auctioneer started the bidding at HK$19m, he quickly received numerous bids from various bidders. After 28 bids, the auctioneer brought the hammer down at HK$52.18m to a lady in room with the paddle no. 8800.

The previous auction record for Liu Ye was set at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in 2013 when Sword, one of the other two works in the trinity, was sold for HK$42.68m at Sotheby’s Hong Kong.

The second top lot of the sale was Big Family No. 16 (From the Bloodline Series) by Zhang Xiaogang. It is a rare masterpiece from Zhang’s seminal Bloodline series – one of only three works with a five-person composition ever created by the artist. The present Big Family No. 16 was executed in 1998, half a decade after the inception of the series when his Bloodline visual lexicon had achieved full maturity.

Big Family No. 16 (From the Bloodline Series)

Zhang Xiaogang

The portrait features a young androgynous couple with three children, each in distinctive attire: the father in a Mao suit, the mother in a unisex shirt and cardigan, the brother in revolutionary cap and uniform and the sister in a Westernized school dress. At the center is a toddler perched on a highchair: naked from the waist down with his little penis exposed, he is singled out in a vivid shade of magenta. Standing rigidly, emotionally isolated from each other and from themselves, the five figures are nevertheless joined by Zhang’s iconic red bloodlines.

After the bidding started at HK$15m, there were mainly two telephone bidders competing for it. One was represented by Kevin Ching (image above), CEO, Sotheby’s Asia, and the other one by Rachel Shen, Deputy Chairman, China. The painting was hammered down at HK$27m and sold for HK$32.57m to Kevin Ching’s client.

The third top lot was Zeng Fanzhi’s Mask Series No. 16 from 1997, which was sold for HK$10.37m and became one of the three artworks that sold for more than HK$10m at the sale.

Top three lots

Liu Ye. Smoke

Lot no.: 1108
Created in: 2001 - 2002
Size: 178 x 356.5cm

  • Private Collection, Beijing (acquired directly from the artist)
  • Sotheby's, Hong Kong, 8 April 2006, Lot 508
  • Diva Fine Arts, Geneva
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner

Estimate: HK$25,000,000 - 35,000,000
Hammer price: HK$44,000,000
Price realised: HK$52,182,000

Zhang Xiaogang. Big Family No. 16 (From the Bloodline Series)

Lot no.: 1124
Created in: 1998
Size: 200 x 250cm

  • Galerie de France, Paris
  • Private Collection, Luxembourg
  • Christie's, New York, 15 November 2006, Lot 81
  • Acquired from the above sale by the present owner

Estimate: HK$20,000,000 - 30,000,000
Hammer price: HK$27,000,000
Price realised: HK$32,575,000

Zeng Fanzhi. Mask Series No. 16

Lot no.: 1107
Created in: 1997
Size: 150 x 130cm

  • Dan and Kazuyo Friedlander, United States
  • Sotheby's, New York, 20 September 2006, Lot 124
  • Acquired from the above sale by the present owner

Estimate: HK$6,000,000 - 8,000,000
Hammer price: HK$8,500,000
Price realised: HK$10,375,000

Auction summary

Auction house: Sotheby’s Hong Kong
Sale: Moutarderie Nationale: The Gillion Crowet Collection
Sale date: 6 October 2019
Lots offered: 30
Sold: 29
Unsold: 1
Sold by lots: 97%
Sale total: HK$137,442,000