This Spring, Christie’s Bet Is On “Chinese Matisse” Sanyu’s Chrysanthemum, To Fetch In Excess of US$11m

Just as major auction houses in New York are drumming up for the Asia Week sales, their Hong Kong counterparts are kept just as busy in preparing their marquee sales this spring.

Earlier this week, Sotheby’s Hong Kong just unveiled its first star lot - Chu Teh-chun’s 1986 triptyque, expected to fetch between HK$80m and HK$120m (US$10.3m to US$15.5m). Carrying a similar pre-sale estimate at Christie’s, the auction house announced yesterday, is a still-life by Sanyu.

The craze for Sanyu’s work in Asia sees no sign of slowing down. The record-smashing name hits the auction block every season, with his white chrysanthemums against red background painting sold for an astounding HK$191m (US$24.6m) last July, and secured the artist’s record of the most expensive still-life. 

Going under the hammer at Christie’s Hong Kong 20th/21st century art sale this time, is another chrysanthemum painting against an indigo blue background. The artwork was last seen at Christie’s evening sale seven years ago and realized HK$46m (US$5.9m). Yet with Sanyu being a new blue-chip artist in the market, is the artist hopeful in breaking his own record again?


Sanyu (Chang Yu, 1985-1966) | Potted Chrysanthemums

Oil on masonite

Painted circa 1950s

Dimensions: 91.5 x 48 cm

Provenance: (Organized by The Value)

  • Acquired directly from the artist by the present owner
  • Private Collection, France
  • Christie’s Hong Kong Asian 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale, May 24, 2014, lot 23 (Price realized: HK$46,040,000 / US$5.9m)

Estimate: HK$78,000,000 - 120,000,000 (US$11,000,000 - 15,000,000)


The Chinese-French modernist, who is hailed as the “Chinese Matisse,” was one of the first-generation Chinese artists who studied in France. 

Female nudes, floral still-lifes, and animals were his three most favored subjects. Flowers, in particular, chrysanthemum, had been a recurring subject for the Sichuan-born painter. His chrysanthemum works thrived and bloomed during the 1930s to 1950s, when the artist tried to seek encouragement and reassurance through the flower’s gentlemanly spirit. 

Wu Guanzhong, renowned for his landscapes combining classic Chinese ink wash and Western oil painting, once said: “I think that Sanyu was himself a bonsai, an Eastern bonsai in the Parisian garden.”


Sanyu, Chinese-French artist, hailed as the “Chinese Matisse”


Of the 133 floral-themed oil paintings in his oeuvre, 55 of them portray chrysanthemums, with the present one being one of them. His chrysanthemum-themed works, since the 1950s, has been enriched with a newfound sense of emotional sincerity, on top of his painterly style that combines Chinese calligraphy and Fauvist palette.

Sanyu’s current still-life record at HK$191m (US$24.6m), is set by his Chrysanthèmes blanches dans un pot bleu et blanc (White Chrysanthemum in a Blue and White Jardiniere) in a Christie’s Hong Kong sale in July last year. The record-breaking oil on panel work measures 110 by 60 cm.


White Chrysanthemum in a Blue and White Jardiniere is the current still-life record for the artist, sold for HK$191m (US$24.6m) last July, Christie’s Hong Kong


Though a closer comparison to the present work, would be Fleurs dans un pot bleu et blanc, which achieved HK$187m (US$24.1m) last July at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, nearly quadrupled the pre-sale low estimate of HK$50m.

Also executed in the 1950s, both works are of very similar size and composition, with one of the minuscule differences being the color of the blossoms. Fleurs dans un pot bleu et blanc measures 91.5 by 48 cm, that is 5,642 cm², whereas the present one being 91 by 62 cm, or 4,392 cm² - which is 28% smaller, explaining why the official statement from Christie’s places the present work of Potted Chrysanthemums specifically as “the largest floral painting by the artist to feature pink blossoms set against vibrant blue branches.”


Sanyu’s Fleurs dans un pot bleu et blanc, sold for HK$187,000,000 (US$24,100,000) in October 2020, Sotheby’s Hong Kong


Fleurs dans un pot bleu et blanc (left) and Potted Chrysanthemums (right) share very similar compositions


The original owner of Potted Chrysanthemums was a French private collector who directly purchased the painting from Sanyu. The work was kept in his collection for over six decades until it was returned to Asia in a Christie’s Hong Kong sale, where it was sold for HK$46m (US$6m), shattering its pre-sale estimate of HK$18m to HK$22m. 

The ever-increasing surge in interest for Sanyu’s work, with proven track records catapult the artist to his newfound modern stalwart status at auction. His iconic Five Nudes for example, skyrocketed from the HK$128m (US$16.5m) record set at Ravenel Taipei in 2011, to over HK$303m (US$39m) in 2019.

Potted Chrysanthemums, which carries a pre-sale estimate of HK$78m to 120m (US$11m - 15m), is hopeful in achieving more than just a within-range result, but perhaps to continue his record-breaking streak. 


Hong Kong | March 15-23

Shanghai | April 12-13

Beijing | April 16-17

Taipei | May 1-2


Auction Details:

Auction house: Christie’s Hong Kong

Sale date: May 24, 2021

Venue: Convention Hall, Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center, No. 1 Harbour Road, Wanchai, Hong Kong