Sanyu's Flower Painting Sold For US$24m at Sotheby's Hong Kong Sale, 40 Times Its Value 16 Years Ago

Traditionally there are two sale seasons every year- the spring sales and the autumn sales. However, due to the pandemic, the spring sales this year were pushed back to July while the autumn sales continue to take place as scheduled. Can the auction industry handle an abundance of sales in such a short period of time? Sotheby’s held their Modern Art Evening Sale yesterday and dispelled the doubts on this sale season’s success. With 3 lots selling for over HK$100m and a sale total of HK$729m (over US$94m), the sale has proven that the art industry is more than excited to see plenty of artworks on the auction stage. 

Sanyu’s nude and flower paintings have dominated the top two positions of the sale. Leading the sale is Sanyu’s Fleurs dans un pot bleu et blanc which is appearing on the auction stage again after 11 years. The work achieved a staggering HK$187m (US$24.1m) and became the champion of the sale. Ranking in number two is Sanyu’s Nu which achieved HK$168m (US$21.7m). 

Another premium lot, Wu Guanzhong’s Scenery of Northern China, realised HK$151m (US$19.5m).

Amongst the 26 lots offered, only 2 failed to sell, generating a sold by lot of 92%. The sale results have exceeded many people’s expectations with a total hammer price of HK$640m, surpassing the pre-sale estimate total of HK$340m-510m. 

Last season, Sotheby’s made HK$826m (over US$106m) in the same sale while the present sale made HK$729m (over US$94m) in total (hammer price plus buyer’s premium). However, 35 lots were offered last season and only 26 are offered this time around. Considering all circumstances, Sotheby’s has indeed put on an impressive sale. 

The location of the sales has been moved from the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre to Sotheby’s Gallery in Admiralty due to the pandemic. A few collectors were present and no media was allowed. 

The following are the top four lots of the sale. 

Lot 1015|Sanyu (1895-1966), Fleurs dans un pot bleu et blanc, oil on masonite

Executed in: 1950
Size: 91 x 62 cm
Provenance (organised by The Value):

  • Raymond Toupenet, Paris
  • Jean-Claude Riedel, Paris
  • Dimensions Art Center, Taipei
  • Private collection, Taipei
  • 14 November 2004, Ravenel International Art Group, Lot no.133, sold for NT$20,370,000
  • Private collection, Asia
  • 29 November 2009, Christie’s Hong Kong, Lot no.1009, sold for HK$34,820,000

Estimate: HK$50,000,000 - 70,000,000
Hammer price: HK$161,000,000 
Price realised: HK$187,000,000

Sanyu and friend in Paris

Sanyu, the Chinese-French artist who is hailed as the “Chinese Matisse” has a net worth of almost US$40m with his nude and flower paintings selling for record-smashing prices in Hong Kong. 

He was one of the first-generation Chinese artists who studied in France and favoured nudes, flowers as well as animals as the subjects of his artwork. His nude paintings are currently highly sought-after in the art world and are the top most expensive Sanyu artwork. Yet, the "power" of Sanyu’s flower paintings must not be underestimated either. In July this year, Sanyu’s record of flower painting was set by Chrysanthèmes blanches dans un pot bleu et blanc, sold by Christie’s Hong Kong for HK$191m (US$24.6m), far exceeding its estimate of HK$60m-80m. The "Sanyu flower painting" fever is further fueled by this record-breaking piece. 

Chrysanthèmes blanches dans un pot bleu et blanc gained the title of “Sanyu’s most expensive still life” in July this year

Fleurs dans un pot bleu et blanc realised an astonishing HK$187m

Fleurs dans un pot bleu et blanc beat Sanyu’s nude painting and became the star of the show. The work carries an estimate of HK$50m-70m and the bidding started at HK$38m. Bids from numerous parties were shooting towards the auctioneer and the price quickly soared through HK$100m with increments of HK$5m. Bidders began to make more careful moves and the pace finally slowed down. In the end, it was a battle between Vinci Chang, Head of Modern Asian Art Department, and Chairman of Sotheby’s Asia, Patti Wong, both of whom represented their clients on the phones. 

After 30 odd bids, the hammer was put down at HK$161m for Chang who continued to make confident bids for her client with the number "L0014". The bidding war lasted a good 10 minutes and a burst of applause came from the crowd when it finally ended. The work achieved an astonishing HK$187m with premium. 

Vinci Chang, Head of Modern Asian Art Department

Fleurs dans un pot bleu et blanc has been sold at auction three times since 2004, and each time its value skyrocketed. 

The painting first belonged to French art dealer Raymond Toupenet, before landing in Jean-Claude Riedel’s hands, an important collector of Sanyu’s artwork. It then joined Dimensions Art Center in Taipei as part of their collection. 

In November 2004, it was on offer with Ravenel International Art Group, carrying an estimate of NT$9.5m-12m and selling for NT$20.37m (US$701,000).

In November 2009, the painting once again made its way onto the auction stage, but with Christie’s this time. It was also the catalogue cover for the sale which was titled “Asian 20th Century & Contemporary Art (Evening Sale)”. The work realised a whopping HK$34.82m (US$4.49m), soaring through its estimate of HK$8m-12m. Within 5 years, the worth of the work has risen by over 7 times. 

And 11 years later, at Sotheby’s today, Fleurs dans un pot bleu et blanc realises HK$187m, over 5 times its selling price in 2009.

Part of Fleurs dans un pot bleu et blanc

Part of Fleurs dans un pot bleu et blanc

Flowers is a theme that Sanyu painted under for his entire life. From the 1930s to the 1950s, under the fertile artistic soil cultivated by the artist, Sanyu’s chrysanthemums thrived and bloomed into the most enduring subject among his flower paintings. 

“I think Sanyu was himself a potted plant, an Eastern potted plant gracing the Parisian garden.” Wu Guanzhong, excerpt from About Sanyu

The artist was well-versed in traditional Chinese literature from a young age and understood the high aesthetic value of chrysanthemum. He would return to this theme particularly during the 1940s and ’50s, frequently depicting chrysanthemums perhaps to seek encouragement and reassurance in the flower’s gentlemanly spirit. Fleurs dans un pot bleu et blanc is not just a still-life painting but represents the artist’s own inner reflections.

Lot 1016|Sanyu (1895-1966), Nu, oil on masonite

Executed in: 1950-1960s
Size: 125 x 95.5 cm

  • Private Collection, Paris (Acquired directly from the artist in 1966)
  • Jean-Claude Riedel, Paris (Sold: Sotheby’s, Hong Kong, mid-1990s, Private Sale)
  • Yageo Collection, Taiwan (Sold: Christie’s, Hong Kong, The Yageo Foundation Collection Sale, 31 October 2004, lot 755)
  • Acquired directly from the above sale by the present important private Asian collector

Estimate upon request
Hammer price: HK$145,000,000
Price realised: HK$168,000,000

The first runner-up of the sale is another one of Sanyu’s paintings- Nu. The main competitors for the work were the clients represented by Chairman of Sotheby’s Asia, Patti Wong, and Asia Director and Senior Specialist of Sotheby's Wine, Paul Wong. The auctioneer started the bidding at HK$85m, and with increments of HK$5m, the price quickly rose to HK$138m. Increments were then lowered to HK$1m. After merely 5 bids, the hammer was put down for Patti Wong’s client with the number "L0048" at HK$145m. They have won the Sanyu nude for HK$168m (US$21.7m) with fees. 

Shortly after migrating to Paris in the 1920s, Sanyu started doing nude studies. For forty years, up until his death, the artist continued to paint nudes which portray the changes that he underwent throughout his career. 

Sanyu’s earlier paintings were of joyful, boisterous colours like pastel whites and pinks that filled them with vitality. By the 1950s and 1960s, Sanyu no longer painted nudes in smooth, elegant lines as he did in the 1930s. Instead, he employed stark contrasts and saturated tones to create contour lines that verge on the angular, manifesting the expressiveness of the human body to the fullest.

One of Sanyu’s early nude studies

The present Nu on offer at Sotheby’s and Nu (1965) which sold for HK$198m last year are some of the representative works of Sanyu’s nude studies created in the 1950s and 1960s.

The two nude paintings are resemblant in style. When comparing the sizes of the two nudes, Nu, on offer today, measures at 125 x 95.5 cm, slightly smaller than Nu sold in 2019 which has the dimensions 122.5 x 135 cm.

In both paintings, Sanyu adopts a highly unusual bottom-up perspective that exaggerates the nude’s lower body and genitals. More than simply presenting the beauty of a woman’s body, he exaggerates and transforms it into something akin to a traditional Asian landscape painting.

Sanyu’s Nu which became the first runner-up of the sale

Sanyu’s Nu sold in 2019

Nu sold in 2019 was hammered down at Sotheby’s for HK172m and sold for HK197m (over US$25m)

Nu (1965) was sold last year at Sotheby’s for HK$197m (over US$25m), a staggering amount which marks Sanyu’s auction record. (His new auction record has since been set by Five Nudes which realised HK$303m.)

And for today’s Nu, after being exhibited at Musée Guimet in 2004, it was put on offer at Christie’s Hong Kong. The work was offered as part of the collection of Taiwanese billionaire Pierre Chen’s Yageo Foundation with an estimate of HK$4m-5m. In the end, it fetched HK$7.34m (US$947,000) and became the most expensive Sanyu sold. Today, it fetched an astonishing HK$168m (US$21.7m) which is 23 times the price it sold for 16 years ago. 

Lot 1013|Wu Guanzhong (1919-2010), Scenery of Northern China, oil on board 

Executed in: 1973 
Size: 71.7 x 160 cm

  • Christie's, Hong Kong, 27 May 2007, Lot 205
  • Important Private Asian Collection

Estimate upon request
Hammer price: HK$36,000,000
Price realised: HK$151,000,000

Raking in third place is Wu Guanzhong’s Scenery of Northern China. The Chinese artist embarked on an extraordinary journey of success by fusing oil painting and Chinese ink painting together. Looking at his oeuvre, he unequivocally dominated both categories with ease. However, his oil paintings have seen more excellent auction results in the Modern Art category. 

As Wu Guanzhong transitioned to Chinese ink paintings by the 80s, there are only a limited number of oil paintings of his on the market. In 2019, Sotheby’s offered Wu’s Revolutionary highlight, Lotus Flower (I). With an estimate of HK$15m, it was fiercely competed for and achieved a final price of HK$130m. Wu’s auction record was also set by an oil painting- his late work Zhouzhuang which fetched HK$236m in 2016. 

Wu Guanzhong’s Lotus Flower (I) sold for HK$130m at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in 2019

Lotus Flower (I), oil on canvas, 1974, 120.5 x 90.5 cm|Sold for HK$130m in 2019, Hong Kong Sotheby’s

Most expensive Wu Guanzhong sold- Zhouzhang

Scenery of Northern China is considered a large painting, perfect for being displayed in museums. The auctioneer began its sale at HK$65m and accepted increments of HK$5m. The hammer was put down again for Patti Wong who bade on behalf of her client with the number “L0009”. With premium, the piece realised HK$151m. According to the bidding sequence, Wu’s work is the first Sotheby’s lot to fetch over HK$100m this season.

Patti Wong

In 2007, the painting reached an astonishing auction result of HK$31.68m at Christie’s Hong Kong. It was then in private hands for 13 years before reappearing for auction this October. It is no surprise that the work could achieve HK$151m, 5 times its previous auction value after all these years.

Scenery of Northern China holds immense significance to Wu. Completed in 1973, the painting signifies the convergence of Western and Eastern art and culture in the 70s.

Part of Scenery of Northern China

Part of Scenery of Northern China

Part of Scenery of Northern China

Part of Scenery of Northern China

Inspired by Mao Zedong’s well-known poem Snow: To the Tune of Spring in Qin’s Garden, the painting’s subject is filled with direct references to the poem. The title, Scenery of Northern China, was in fact based on the poem’s first line, “North Country Scene”. The grey and white brushstrokes enhance nature’s greatness and at the same time mirror similes stated in the poem. 

Upon completion, the painting was further used as a reference to create a six-meter mural painting for the Beijing Capital Airport in 1979. Hence, this unique painting is an epitome of a modernized China, portrayed by Western iconographic aesthetics. 

A six-meter mural painting based on Scenery of Northern China for the Beijing Capital Airport in 1979

Wu Guanzhong and his mural for the Beijing Capital Airport

7 other lots fetched over HK$10m, including Chu Teh-Chun and Zao Wou-Ki’s works.

Lot 1024|Chu Teh-Chun (1920-2014), No. 312,  oil on canvas 

Executed in: 1969
Size: 200 x 200 cm

  • de Sarthe Gallery, Hong Kong
  • Private Asian Collection
  • Christie's, Hong Kong, 28 May 2016, Lot 32
  • Acquired directly from the above by the present important private Asian collector 

Estimate: HK$37,000,000 - 47,000,000
Hammer price: HK$51,000,000
Price realised: HK$60,665,000

Abstract painter Chu Teh-Chun’s Les éléments confédérés, his only pentaptych work, achieved HK$113 in the last Hong Kong Spring Sales. And in this sale, Sotheby’s offered the Chinese-French artist’s No. 312 which became the fourth top lot.

The painting was mainly pursued by Nicolas Chow, Chairman of Sotheby’s Asia as well as a gentleman in the saleroom. The auctioneer began the bidding at HK$30m, and after 10 bids, the hammer was put down for Chow’s client at HK$51m. The work realised HK$60.66m (US$7.83m) and ranked fourth in the sale. 

No. 312 could be considered one of those early masterpieces inspired by snowy landscapes. In 1965, Chu Teh-Chun was invited to an art festival in Savoy, France. While he was there, he had the chance to climb Mont Blanc. The first time he looked up at the pure white mountain peaks made a deep impression on him. In the painting, the mountain range is depicted in navy blue and sudden flashes of daylight appear in emerald green. Grey tones create the rhythm of snowflakes as they fly through the air. 

Something unexpected also happened in the sale. Zao Wou-Ki's 04.08.98 was first hammered down at HK$20m, but the auctioneer tried to "re-sell" the painting, though unsuccessful. It might be due to the fact that bids from important clients were missed. 

Lot 1018|Zao Wou-Ki (1920-2013), 04.08.98, oil on canvas (Top 7th lot)

Executed in: 1998
Size: 150 x 162

  • Galerie Thessa Herold, Paris
  • Acquired directly from the above by the former owner in 1999
  • Christie's, Hong Kong, 26 May 2012, Lot 2002
  • Acquired directly from the above by the present important private Asian collector  

Estimate: HK$20,000,000 - 40,000,000
Hammer price: HK$20,000,000
Price realised: HK$24,357,000

Lot 1014|Wu Guanzhong (1919-2010), Scenery of Guilin (Top 5th lot) 

Executed in: 1973
Size: 64.2 x 42 cm

  • Collection of the artist's uncle and aunt (gift of the artist in 1978) 
  • Private Asian Collection 
  • Christie's, Hong Kong, 27 May 2007, Lot 206
  • Important Private Asian Collection 

Estimate: HK$18,000,000 - 26,000,000
Hammer price: HK$36,000,000
Price realised: HK$43,430,000

Lot 1019|Zao Wou-Ki (1920-2013), 17.06.61, oil on canvas (Top 6th lot)

Executed in: 1961
Size: 60 x 73 cm

  • Galerie de France, Paris
  • Private European Collection
  • Sotheby's, Hong Kong, 2 April 2012, Lot 539
  • Acquired directly from the above by the former owner
  • Christie’s, Hong Kong, 30 May 2015, Lot 56
  • Acquired directly from the above by the present important private Asian collector

Estimate: HK$15,000,000 - 25,000,000
Hammer price: HK$21,000,000
Price realised: HK$25,585,000

Lot 1023|Lalan (1921-1995), Les formes sortent du bleu et du vert, oil on canvas (diptych) (Auction record for the artist)

Executed in: 1972
Size: 95 x 260.6 cm (whole painting)

  • Private European Collection 
  • Sotheby's, Hong Kong, 7 October 2012, Lot 549
  • Acquired directly from the above by the former private European collector
  • Christie's, Hong Kong, 28 May 2016, Lot 33
  • Acquired directly from the above by the present important private Asian collector 

Estimate: HK$4,500,000 - 6,500,000
Hammer price: HK$9,000,000
Price realised: HK$11,065,000

Lot 1028|Li Huayi (b.1948), Lying On Snow, ink and colour on paper (Auction record for the artist) 

Executed in: 2008
Size: 190 x 580 cm (whole painting)
Provenance: Important Private Asian Collection 
Estimate: HK$5,000,000 - 10,000,000
Hammer price: HK$6,500,000
Price realised: HK$8,040,000

Auction Summary

Auction House: Sotheby’s Hong Kong
Sale: Modern Art Contemporary Sale
Sale date: 2020/10/5
Lots offered: 26
Sold: 24
Unsold: 2
Sold by lot: 92%
Sale total: HK$729,916,000