Chen Danqing’s Painting of a Stolen Kiss from Tibetan Series Becomes Most Expensive Chinese Contemporary Art at US$25.1m

With modern and contemporary art proven to be one of the most resilient sectors time and time again during the pandemic, a shepherds painting from renowned artist Chen Danqing’s Tibetan Series spearheaded Poly Beijing's Modern and Contemporary Art Evening Sale and fetched a staggering RMB 161m (US$25.1m) to become the most valuable Chinese contemporary artwork at auction.


Lot 3307 | Chen Danqing, Tibetan Series - Shepherds

Painted in 1980
Oil on board
Dimensions: 78.6 × 52.3 cm
Estimate upon request
Hammer price: RMB 140,000,000
Price realized: RMB 161,000,000

One of the seven paintings from American-Chinese painter Chen Danqing’s Tibetan series, the present work last went under the hammer in a 2007 auction in Beijing, where it was sold for RMB 35.8m (US$5.3m) to become the artist’s auction record.

Closer look at Tibetan Series - Shepherds

After 14 years, the prized work was opened at RMB 80m and the price was propelled to the million-yuan benchmark after just eight bids. After some 25 more bids, the auctioneer lowered the hammer at RMB 140m. With fees, it realized RMB 161m (US$25.1m), to become the most expensive Chinese contemporary artworks.

The record has catapulted Chen to the list of highest-grossing Chinese contemporary artists, alongside Zeng Fanzhi and Chen Yifei. Here are their artworks that cross the million-yuan benchmark:

  • Chen Danqing, Tibetan Series - Shepherds | RMB 161,000,000 (US$25,154,000) | Jun 2021
  • Zeng Fanzhi, Mask Series 1996 No. 6 | RMB 161,000,000 (US$23,238,000) | Aug 2020
  • Chen Yifei, Warm Spring in the Jade Pavilion | RMB 149,500,000 (US$22,115,000) | Dec 2017
  • Zeng Fanzhi, The Last Supper | HK$180,440,000 (US$23,269,000) | Oct 2013

Editor’s note: Tibetan Series - Shepherds and Mask Series 1996 No. 6 share the same price realized in RMB. US dollars are calculated based on the exchange rate at the time of purchase.

Zeng Fanzhi | The Last Supper

Zeng Fanzhi | Mask Series 1996 No. 6

Chen Yifei | Warm Spring in the Jade Pavilion

Set against the extensive grassland of Lhasa, Tibet, Shepherds depicts the humanistic sentiments shared by the couple in traditional Tibetan garments. Portrayed in a refreshingly unostentatious manner, the painting captures the moment of a stolen kiss that feels so genuine and free of superfluous details added to the composition. 

Painted in 1980, just four years after the end of China’s Cultural Revolution, the present work sheds light on romantic relationships of ordinary Tibetans and their primitive emotions through a candid moment, which is vastly different from the propaganda art during the Cultural Revolution. 

Chen Danqing (b.1953)

The Shanghai-born artist Chen Danqing was one of the many artists painting propaganda for the Communist regime in the 1970s. Having painted more than a hundred glorifying portraits of Mao Zedong - one of the most honored figures in the Chinese Communist Party, the young artist earned his accolades as a revolutionary socialist painter.

Chen was sent to the outskirts of Jiangxi Province during the 1970s, as a part of the regime during the Cultural Revolution-era China and spent five years there. In 1976, the regime took him to Tibet for the first time, where he was captivated by the subject matter of ethnic minorities. Towards the end of the Cultural Revolution, his creative output started becoming more unrestrained and Harvest Fields Flooded by Tears was one of his coveted paintings he created during that period.

Chen Danqing | Harvest Fields Flooded by Tears  

As the Cultural Revolution came to an end, Chen was admitted to the China Central Academy of Fine Arts. He returned to the Tibetan soil in 1976, in search of inspiration for his graduation project. That was when his Tibetan Series began. The series of seven oil paintings he created during the late 1970s to the 1980s took a radical turn from politically influenced images to Tibetan’s daily life rituals, through a “non-narrative” approach, as the artist puts it.

Each of the seven works in the series, titled Mother and Child, Pilgrimage, One City, Shepherds, City of the Two, Shampoo, and Kamba Man, projects glimpses of the Tibetan people’s life. With Tibet being a contentious topic in even post-Cultural Revolution China, the paintings introduced a new realm to the country’s art scene. 

Chen Danqing | Tibetan Series - Mother and Child

Chen Danqing | Tibetan Series - Kamba Man

The 1980s also marks a pivotal era for realism in mainland China. The subverted ideology progressed to modern realism and Chen’s visual lexicon with influences of French realist painter Jean François Millet can be observed through the “caught in the moment” style captured by the Tibetan Series. The present work of Shepherds is an exemplification of that, and marks one of the most iconic works across his oeuvre. 

“If the audience is unexpectedly touched by the truthful description and humanity in the work, and feel that ‘this is life and these are the people’, that is my biggest wish.” said Chen.

Jean François Millet | The Gleaners | Collection of Musée d’Orsay, Paris

The 29-lot sale reaped a solid RMB 383.6m (US$60m) after fees with a sell-through rate of 90%. Trailing behind Chen’s star lot were paintings by his contemporaries such as Liu Ye, Wu Guanzhong, KAWS, among others. 

Other highlights of the sale include:

Lot 3319 | Liu Ye, Bamboo Bamboo Broadway 

Painted in 2011-2012
Acrylic on canvas
Dimensions: 600 x 900 cm
Estimate upon request
Hammer price: RMB 70,000,000
Price realized: RMB 80,500,000

Lot 3311 | Wu Guanzhong, By the Side of the Fuchun River

Painted in 1963
Oil on wood panel
Dimensions: 61 x 46 cm
Estimate: RMB 22,000,000 - 35,000,000
Hammer price: RMB 23,000,000
Price realized: RMB 26,450,000

Lot 3305 | Zeng Fanzhi, Mask Series

Painted in 2000
Oil on canvas
Dimensions: 197 x 69 cm

  • Poly Hong Kong Chinese & Asian Modern and Contemporary Art sale, April 7, 2014, lot 201
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner

Estimate: RMB 12,000,000 - 16,000,000
Hammer price: RMB 14,000,000
Price realized: RMB 16,100,000

Lot 3313 | Chu Teh-chun, Composition No. 338

Painted in 1970
Oil on canvas
Dimensions: 113.6 x 145.4 cm
Estimate: RMB 11,000,000 - 15,000,000
Hammer price: RMB 12,000,000
Price realized: RMB 13,800,000

Lot 3324 | KAWS, Untitled

Painted in 2013
Acrylic on canvas
Dimensions: 182.9 x 205.7 cm

  • Todd Kramer Gallery
  • Private Collection

Estimate: RMB 6,000,000 - 10,000,000
Hammer price: RMB 8,500,000
Price realized: RMB 9,775,000

Lot 3301 | Zhou Chunya, Spring Breeze (Diptych) 

Painted in 2013
Oil on canvas
Dimensions: 160 x 210 cm (each)

  • Private collection (directly acquired from the artist)

Estimate: RMB 8,000,000 - 15,000,000
Hammer price: RMB 8,500,000
Price realized: RMB 9,775,000

Lot 3306 | Zeng Fanzhi, Blessing Deer

Painted in 2010
Oil on canvas
Dimensions: 220 x 180 cm
Estimate: RMB 8,000,000 - 15,000,000
Hammer price: RMB 8,000,000
Price realized: RMB 9,200,000

Auction Details: 

Auction house: Beijing Poly
Sale: Modern and Contemporary Art Evening Sale
Date: June 4, 2021
Lots offered: 29
Sold: 26
Unsold: 3
Sale rate: 90%
Sale total: RMB 383,605,500 (US$59,962,340)