5 highlights from Shanghai Long Museum founders' US$95m art sale in Hong Kong

Early next month, the billionaire couple behind Shanghai's Long Museum, Liu Yiqian and Wang Wei, will be offering a portion of their extensive art collection for sale at Sotheby's Hong Kong. The proceeds from the auction will go to support various key initiatives at the museum and fund future acquisitions.

This single-collection sale has become the headliner of Sotheby's upcoming autumn auction series, as the Chinese husband-and-wife duo have gained prominence for their big-ticket art acquisitions in recent years.

Leading the sale is Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani’s Paulette Jourdain, which carries an on-request estimate of HK$350 million (US$45 million). Created in 1919 and standing over a meter tall, it is among the last and largest paintings by the artist.

Besides that, the collection includes coveted works by artists such as René Magritte, Léonard Tsuguharu Foujita, Zao Wou-ki, and David Hockney. Collectively, the nearly 40 works – instead of 50 as Sotheby's first announced – are expected to yield between HK$745 million and 1.6 billion (US$95.3 and 135 million).

The co-founders of the Long Museum in Shanghai, Liu Yiqian and his wife Wang Wei

Amedeo Modigliani | Paulette Jourdain, Oil on canvas
Created circa 1919
100.3 x 64.5 cm
Estimate upon request (expected to fetch in the region of HK$350 million / US$45 million)

One of Liu Yiqian's most famous big buying included Amedeo Modigliani's Paulette Jourdain, which sold to the tycoon in 2015 for US$42.8 million at Sotheby's, marking the beginning of Liu's rise on the global auction stage.

Just a week later, Liu made a splash in the art market as he snapped up another Modigliani, Nu couché, at Christie's for a whopping US$170.4 million, which was then the second-most highest price ever paid for a painting at auction. That work now remains in the collection of the Long Museum. 

In fact, Modigliani's works are hard to come by on the market. An embodiment of a brilliant yet tragic artist, Modigliani passed away at the young age of thirty-five, leaving behind only a lifetime creation of around 350 art pieces, with many belonging to important museum collections.

Amedeo Modigliani

Amedeo Modigliani | Nu couché, Sold: US$170,405,000 at Christie's in 2015 | Now in the collection of Shanghai's Long Museum 

Towards the end of his brief and turbulent life, between 1916 and 1919, the matured artist became increasingly interested in the subject of youths, especially those who came from humble backgrounds. By painting common people in large formats, he ennobled them with grandeur, majesty, and dignity.

The sitter in this work, Jourdain, was the 14-year-old housemaid and later lover of his dealer Léopold Zborowski. When they first met at Zborowski's apartment, Modigliani was immediately intrigued and invited her to his studio to have her portrait painted. 

Modigliani was clearly taken with her, for not only was she painted on one of the largest canvases used by the artist, but her name has also remained in the title, while his other youthful sitters have not. 

After finishing this work, Modigliani would love to paint another portrait of her, but his rapidly declining health and untimely death prevented that from happening – making this work his only known portrait of Jourdain, as well as one of his final paintings. 

René Magritte | Le miroir universel, Oil on canvas
Created between 1938 and 1939
116 x 89 cm
Estimate: HK$70,000,000 - 95,000,000 (US$8.9 -12.1 million)

Surrealist master René Magritte's Le miroir universel is another work that Liu bought during the 2015 New York Autumn Sales, for which he paid US$6.7 million at Christie's. The piece is now expected to fetch between US$8.9 and 12.1 million; if it does, it will have a 2.2-million increase in value over eight years.

Magritte is famed for his engaging images that combine everyday objects in whimsical and thought-provoking contexts. In a world of paradoxes, Magritte seeks to question the experience of perception within painting.

The present work belongs to a seminal group of works which Magritte executed on the subject of the female nude in an unidentified landscape during the mid-1930s and 1940s. Over a metre in height, Le miroir universel is the largest of the representations on this theme.

René Magritte and his wife Georgette Berger

The model for this series was the artist's wife Georgette Berger and her image is depicted in a classical manner, abiding by the laws of conventional beauty and proportion, resembling a Rennaissance sculpture or a mythical figure as much as a live model.

While deliberately evoking other famous nudes in the history of art, especially Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, Magritte wittily juxtaposed the traditional representation with the unexpected colouration of the figure, whose upper body gradually acquires the tone of the night sky. As the artist explained, "Black magic. It is an act of black magic to turn woman’s flesh into sky."

The crisp edge that separates this outside world from the warmly lit interior is a jagged line that emphasizes the tension conjured by these two worlds. In this, Magritte evokes another of his most celebrated motifs – the uncanny combination of nighttime and daytime worlds.

Léonard Tsugouharu Foujita | Nu au chat, Ink and oil on canvas
Created in 1930
97.5 x 163 cm
Estimate: HK$40,000,000 - 60,000,000 (US$5.1 - 7.6 million)

While the female nude has been a classic subject in Western art since antiquity, it holds a marginal place in classic Asian art, save for within the intimacy of certain Japanese prints where women are essentially relegated to serving as objects of desire.

When the 27-year-old Léonard Tsuguharu Foujita left Japan for the exuberant Paris in 1913, the discovery of the feminine nude model appealed to him as a captivating yet heretical field of exploration, all the more so since it had no real footing in his culture.

Shortly after his arrival, he was easily immersed in the artistic circles of bohemian Montparnasse, rubbing shoulders with his contemporaries such as Matisse, Picasso, and Léger. Fully absorbed in the swirling atmosphere of the vibrant art scene, he daringly delved into his newfound subject matter of female nudes and went on to explore what he thought was the most beautiful material, the human skin. 

Combined with the aesthetic and stylistic traditions of Japan, his depictions of women are sublime and minimalist celebrations of sensuousness, their skin uniquely displaying a tender and ethereal "milky white".

His inventive hybrid Eastern-Western portraits swiftly gained him immense critical acclaim – every painting in his first solo exhibition in 1917 was sold. 

Léonard Tsugouharu Foujita is known for painting nudes and cats

Over the course of 1921 to 1931, Foujita created a series of large-scale reclining nudes, which saw him truly establish his own style in Paris and brought him to the peak of his fame.

The majority of these nudes have been collected by art museums around the world, including the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, the Musee Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels, the Musée du Petit Palais, Geneva, the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo.

The present Nude with Cat, painted in 1930, is the only one remaining in private hands. It last hit the auction block in 2016 at Sotheby's Hong Kong, selling to Wang Wei for HK$39.4 million.

There are two other works featuring nudes in similar postures during this decade of creative excellence: the original draft, completed in 1924, and Supine Nude, completed in 1931 – both of them are in the permanent collection of the Fukuoka Art Museum in Japan. 

Zao Wou-ki | 10.03.78, Oil on canvas 
Created circa 1978
200 x 161.6 cm
Estimate: HK$32,000,000 - 50,000,000 (US$4.1 - 6.4 million)

Arriving in Paris about two decades after Foujita, Chinese-born artist Zao Wou-ki, on the other hand, conquered the Western art scene with his bold and wild abstract paintings that synthesized tenets of modernism, calligraphy, and traditional Chinese landscape painting. 

Having approached the canvas with dominant power for more than two decades, his formidable energy came to a sudden halt in 1972 – on 10 March, his wife May passed away. Devastated, he was trapped in the abyss and had a time painting.

In remembrance of her beloved wife, though, he spent six months creating 10.09.72 – En mémoire de May, which is now in the collection of Center Pompidou in Paris. Since then, Zao would often complete his works on 10 March as a tender commemoration of his wife.

Zao Wou-ki and his second wife May

During this difficult time, Zao Wou-ki embarked on a profound introspection, reassessing the intricate bond between his artistry and his Eastern heritage. Seeking solace, he dived into the realm of Chinese traditional philosophy and beliefs, finding a sanctuary for his soul.

When he was able to pick up his brushes again, his artistic approach significantly changed, from fighting against the canvas with vigorous lines in central-axis composition, to finding his peace of mind and sharing his understanding of the universe’s infinite wisdom with wide-open expression.

The present 10.03.78 is an open window to Zao’s newly appreciated world. Following his stream of consciousness, he creates a space filled with ambient nature on the canvas, where layers and layers of soft earth-toned colours are splashed in different directions harmoniously, conjuring roaring waves or driving snow, reminiscent of the traditional Chinese landscape painting.

This series of works which he commemorated his wife is rarely seen at auctions, with only seven of them appearing in the last few decades. With a height of two meters, 10.03.78 is the largest single canvas among these seven works.

David Hockney | A Picture of a Lion, Acrylic on canvas
Created in 2018
121.9 x 243.8 cm
Estimate: HK$42,000,000 - 55,000,000 (US$5.3 - 7 million)

One of the most influential and prolific living artists of the 21st century, David Hockney has been challenging the traditional representation of three-dimensional space for decades.

In the months leading up to his landmark travelling retrospective in 2017, Hockney embarked on a series of fifteen works that take his career-long experimentation of perspective in a new direction.

He cuts off the lower corners of a rectangular canvas to create a hexagon. By playing with irregular hexagonal canvas, he was able to give the illusion of a widening picture with aspects painted in reversed perspective, allowing the eye to bend the picture far beyond the frame. 

As he quips, "Someone said I was cutting corners, but actually, I've added two... Why didn't I think of this twenty years ago?" 

In the Studio, a panoramic colour photographic image of David Hockney and numerous hexagonal paintings

Space flows in a series of perspectives that fold into each other in one compressed plane across the present A Picture of a Lion, with Hockney intending his canvas to be read ‘in time,’ the way a viewer unrolls a Chinese scroll, physically moving through its narrative.

By destabilising conventional perspective and painting a scene that offers numerous points of view from diverging vantage points, the viewer is placed within the picture itself, an effect akin to watching a performance on stage.

Brimming with Hockney's instantly recognisable use of joyful colour, A Picture of Lion is also a return to the artist’s early and influential work in theatre set design, in which he blurs the line between reality and fantasy, landscape and interiority, presenting a whimsical stage of his own vivid inner world.

Other Highlight Lots:

Mark Bradford | L.A., Mixed media on canvas
Created in 2019
304.8 x 304.8 cm
Estimate: HK$30,000,000 - 50,000,000 (US$3.3 - 6.4 million)

Nicolas Party | Still Life, Soft pastel on linen
Created in 2015
170 x 180 cm
Estimate: HK$20,000,000 - 30,000,000 (US$2.6 - 3.8 million)

Matthew Wong | The Golden Age, Oil on canvas
Created in 2018
203.2 x 165.1 cm
Estimate: $14,000,000 - 22,000,000 (US$1.8 - 2.8 million)

Wu Dayu | UNTITLED-19, Oil on canvas
Created circa 1980
54 x 39 cm
Estimate: HK$11,000,000 - 18,000,000 (US$1.4 - 2.3 million)

Auction Details:

Auction House: Sotheby's Hong Kong
Sale: A Long Journey: A Selection from the Liu Yiqian and Wang Wei Collection
Number of Lots: Near 40
Date and Time: 5 October 2023 | 5:30 p.m. (Hong Kong Local Time)