Sanyu's Branches sells for US$11.1m to top Sotheby's HK modern art evening sale

Sotheby’s marathon evening sales this season kicked off with a Modern Art Evening Sale. Amongst 37 lots offered, only three failed to find new buyers, pulling in for the house a sale total of HK$457 million (around US$58.6 million).

While Zao Wou-ki's works have been highly anticipated before the sale, the abstract master appeared to have delivered lacklustre performances – 15.02.65, which fetched over HK$100 million three years ago, eventually sold for a mere HK$77.5 million. His another painting, Les Oliviers, also went unsold.

The crowning lot of the sale belonged to Sanyu's strong autobiographical piece, Branches, having garnered HK$86.6 million (around US$11.1 million) with buyer's premium – further cementing the 'Chinese Matisse' blue-chip status in Asian market.

Lot 1018 | Sanyu | Branches, Oil on board
Created in March 1963
90.5 x 119.5 cm
Provenance (Amended by The Value):

  • Yves Rapilly, Paris (gifted by the artist in March 1963)
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner
  • Property from the Collection of the Lévy Family

Estimate: HK$50,000,000 - $100,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$73,000,000
Sold: HK$86,692,000 (US$11.11 milllion)

The bidding started at HK$32 million and soared to HK$50 million within a minute in HK$1 increment. From there onwards, the tug-of-war was between telephone bidders represented by Wendy Lin, Deputy Chairman of Sotheby's Asia and Patti Wong, Senior International Chairman of Sotheby’s.

After around 23 bids, it was Wendy Lin’s client with paddle number 35 who placed the victorious bid at HK$73 million. After fees, the lot sold for HK$86.6 million (around US$11.1 million).

Sanyu's Branches was hammered down at HK$73 million

Wendy Lin won the bid for her client with paddle number 35

Created in March 1963, Branches is one of Sanyu's few works with a clear date and a strong autobiographical masterpiece that shows the artist's inner world during the 1960s.

Born in Sichuan during late 19th century, Sanyu arrived Paris in 1921 alongside a wave of young Chinese artists who took advantage of a government-sponsored work-study program. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Sanyu had no intention to return to his hometown. ‘I am obliged to stay on in Paris,’ he later concluded, ‘to live the life of a bohemian.’ 

Despite his consistent effort to merge Eastern and Western aesthetics, he remained largely unknown to the art world and had been in dire straits – at a point he could not even afford art supplies. His change of fortune came in the 1960s, when he was invited to design the exhibition catalogue for Chinese master Zhang Daqian and hold a solo exhibition in Taipei. For the first time, he felt compelled to return to his roots, and this period laid the groundwork for his final artistic achievements – including the present lot, Branches, painted in March 1963.

Considering the seasonal background and visual form of the flowers, Branches reminds of plum blossoms that bloom between winter and spring, a symbol for resilience and perseverance in the face of adversity in Chinese tradition. With its bud waiting to open, it shows Sanyu’s hope for an early spring after a long, dark winter.

Among Sanyu's floral paintings, there are only three other works that share the same antler-like compostition: Branches de prunier and two Fleurs de prunier – the latter two are now part of the permanent collection of Taiwan's National Museum of History, while the other remains in private hand. The present Branches is the largest of the four paintings. 

Lot 1041 | Zao Wou-Ki | 15.02.65, Oil on canvas
Created in 1965
97 x 195 cm
Provenance (Amended by The Value):

  • Kootz Gallery, New York
  • Private Collection (acquired from the above)
  • Sotheby's, London, 18 October 1990, Lot 57 (consigned by the above)
  • Private Asian Collection
  • Sotheby's, Hong Kong, 31 March 2019, Lot 1029 (consigned by the above, Sold: HK$102,298,000)
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner

Estimate: HK$65,000,000 – 100,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$65,000,000
Sold: HK$77,500,000 (US$9.9 million)

In 2019, 15.02.65 was hammered down at HK$88 million and garnered HK$102 million (around US$13 million) after fees at Sotheby's Hong Kong. This time, the chef-d’oeuvre has seemingly failed to arouse interests from buyers, which allowed Wendy Lin's client, most probably its irrevocable bid buyer, to acquire it HK$77.5 million (around US$9.9 million) after fees – meaning its value has dropped nearly one fourth over three years.

Swift, surging, and scribbled ink lines rush into the painting from the left and right, converging and colliding in the centre. Bright yellow tones, like golden beams, illuminate a work exploding with energy. Through the wild brushwork in this present work, viewers can envision the artist in the prime of his life standing in front of this massive no. 120 canvas with paintbrush in hand – poised to begin wrestling with the painting.

Part of 15.02.65

Zao Wou-ki and his second wife May Zao

15.02.65 exhibited at Kurtz Gallery, New York, in 1965

This piece is typical of the works that Zao made during his collaboration with New York’s Kootz Gallery in the 1960s; it was also the most important painting in his 1965 solo show at the gallery. Kootz Gallery, which seldom published catalogues, chose this work as the focal point for this exhibition’s promotional materials and printed a leaflet. This indicated how much American art dealer, Samuel Kootz, appreciated Zao and his work, as well as his importance in the international art world.

After he arrived in New York, the artist discovered that the American cultural context was entirely different from the long histories of China and France. During the post-war period, New York had become the world’s creative centre and leader of the avant-garde, and Abstract Expressionism condensed the unrestrained, bold, and innovative spirit of American culture.

Deeply inspired by this spirit, Zao approached Eastern culture in a new way and changed his painting style. This change in 1959 inspired the beginning of Zao’s Hurricane Period, which lasted until 1972, and was recognised as one of his creative peaks.

Zao's Juin-Octobre 1985|Sotheby's Hong Kong, 2018 | Sold for record-breaking HK$510 million (around US$65 million) dollars

Zao's 29.09.64 (1964)|Christie's Hong Kong, 2022 | Sold: HK$278 million

Although the market for Zao’s works declined after the pandemic began, it quickly rebounded. In May 2022, 29.09.64 fetched HK$278 million (around US$35.5 million) dollars at Christie's Hong Kong, which set the auction record for a single painting by the artist:

  • Zao’s Juin-Octobre 1985 | 280 x 1,000 cm|Sotheby's Hong Kong, 2018 | Sold: HK$510,371,000 (World auction record for an Asian oil painting)
  • Zao’s 29.09.64 | 230 x 345 cm|Christie's Hong Kong, 2022 | Sold: HK$278,000,000 (Auction record for a single painting by the artist)

Lot 1029 | Pablo Picasso | Femme assise a la galette des rois (Seated woman with a king cake), Oil on canvas
Created in 1965
100 x 73 cm

  • Galerie Louise Leiris, Paris (inv. no. 011662; acquired from the artist)
  • Michel Couturier, Paris
  • Galerie Bonnier, Lausanne
  • Acquired from the above by the father of the present owner circa 1966-67

Estimate: HK$60,000,000 – 80,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$64,000,000
Sold: HK$76,351,000 (US$9.7 million)

Debut at auction with an estimate between HK$60 and 80 million, the lot sparked interests from a floor bidder and a telephone bidder from the New York saleroom. The auctioneer opened the bidding at HK$48 million and took alternating bids from both sides. 

After around 10 bids, the hammered was down at HK$64 million, sold to the floor bidder with paddle number 8880, who seemed to be Kevin Ching, fomer Chief Executive Officer of Sotheby’s Asia, for HK$76.3 million (around US$9.8 million). 

The floor bidder with paddle number 8880, seemed to be Kevin Ching, fomer Chief Executive Officer of Sotheby’s Asia

Picasso had a lot of lovers in his life – two wives, six mistresses and many short-term love affairs. Each female companion had their own style, which has become an source of inspiration for the Spanish artist.

But his last lover, Jacqueline Roque, became the most frequent and longest-running subject in Picasso's career. From the first time the couple met in 1952 until his death in 1973, Jacqueline was featured in more than 400 portraits – exceeding any of her husband's previous lovers. First appeared in Picasso’s Jacqueline aux Fleurs and Jacqueline aux Bras Croises, painted on successive days of 2 and 3 June 1954 respectively.

Picasso and Jacqueline

The love that Picasso felt for his wife and the richness of their time together is reflected in the passionate vitality of the present work. In the portrait, the elegantly crowned Jacqueline is holding a traditional French dessert, the galette des rois (king cake).

A cake traditionally baked in the weeks after Christmas, it normally contains a small charm or figurine baked inside it; whoever finds this wins a prize and becomes “king for a day”. This festive detail offers a touching insight into the life of artist and muse and evokes an atmosphere of playful celebration that animates the composition.

Picasso's Femme Accroupie (1954) | Sotheby's Hong Kong, 2021 | Sold: HK$191,651,000 (around US$24.6 million)

Femme assise a la galette des rois has been in the same family collection since the late 1960s. From 1988 to 1989, this present work was exhibited at Picasso’s major retrospective at the Moderna Museet, Stockholm and it is now appearing for the first time at auction.

In Hong Kong, Picasso's paintings have been well-received. His 1954 work, Femme Accroupie, which also depicts Jacqueline, landed HK$191 million (around US$24.6 million) dollars in October 2021 – the most expensive Picasso painting sold in Asia. Created in 1954, the painting measures 92.2 by 73 centimetres, which is a similar size to Femme assise a la galette des rois.

Lot 1042 | Pierre Soulages | Peinture 195 x 130 cm, 3 decembre 1956; Oil on canvas
Created in 1956
195 x 130 cm

  • Charles and Peter Gimpel, London
  • Gimpel Fils Gallery, London
  • Gimpel and Weitzenhoffer Gallery, New York
  • Private European Collection
  • Sotheby’s, Paris, 7 December 2011, Lot 9 (consigned by the above, Sold: €1,576,750)
  • Applicat Prazan, Paris
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner

Estimate: HK$40,000,000 – 60,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$37,000,000
Sold: HK$45,145,000 (US$5.7 million)

This present oeuvre was painted on a no.120 canvas, and according to his catalogue raisonne, Soulages created more than 330 works in the 1950s, but only 50 were painted on no. 120 or larger canvases.

In the past 10 years, only five works of the same type appeared at auction. A painting of the same size as this present one – Peinture 195 x 130 cm, 4 aout 1961 – sold for US$20.1 million dollars at Sotheby's New York in November 2021, and set a new auction record for the French artist.

Pierre Soulages (left) and Zao Wou-Ki (right) were close friends and inspired one another artistically

Soulages' Peinture 195 x 130 cm, 4 aout 1961 | Sotheby's New York, 2021 | Sold: US$20,141,700

In a turbulent post-war world, artists gained a new understanding of expression and creation. Artists including Soulages abandoned representational methods and established an abstract artistic language within the post-war avant-garde.

In Peinture 195 x 130 cm, 3 decembre 1956, glimmering gold and bronze tones seem to emerge from the pitch blackness – the epitome of simple elegance. The thick, heavy brushstrokes are accented by refracted white light. He once said, “Black is never the same because light changes it.”

Soulages has been fascinated with archaeology since childhood, and prehistoric wall paintings and medieval monasteries and convents particularly interest him. The strong, architectural quality to the oil paint invokes unique elements from past aesthetic movements. Post-war artists such as Franz Kline and Georges Mathieu also drew inspiration from the Eastern aesthetic. During the mid-20th century, Soulages encountered Zao Wou-Ki and other Asian painters in Paris, and in this cultural milieu, he started to create abstract compositions with calligraphic rhythms.

Other Highlight Lots:

Lot 1040 | Chu Teh-chun | Printemps précoce, Oil on canvas (diptych)
Created in 1985
192 x 258 cm

  • Important Private European Collection 

Estimate: HK$18,000,000 - 28,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$18,000,000
Sold: HK$22,155,000

Lot 1044 | Zao Wou-ki | 04.01.62, Oil on canvas

Created in 1962
65 x 92 cm
Provenance (Amended by The Value):

  • The Redfern Gallery, London
  • Liverpool, S. Samuels Esq. (acquired from the above in 1962) 
  • Sotheby's, London, 3 December 1981, Lot 530
  • Private European Collection
  • Sotheby's, Hong Kong, 4 April 2011, Lot 635 (consigned by the above) (Sold: HK$14,100,000)
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner

Estimate: HK$15,000,000 - 25,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$16,000,000
Sold: HK$19,735,000

Lot 1031 | Joan Miró | Personnage dans la nuit, Oil on canvas
Created in 1893 - 1983
91.7 x 73 cm

  • Spanish Royal Family (acquired from the artist in 1980) 
  • Private Collection, Mexico (a gift from the above in the 1980s)
  • Private Collection, Mexico (by descent from the above)
  • Thence by descent to the present owner 

Estimate: HK$12,000,000 - 18,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$12,000,000
Sold: HK$14,895,000

Lot 1045 | Zao Wou-ki | Mon pays, Oil on canvas
Created in 1957
60 x 92.5 cm

  • Galerie de France, Paris 
  • Private Collection, Switzerland (acquired from the above by late 1950s)
  • Parke-Bernet Galleries Inc., New York, 18 March 1965, Lot 142 (consigned by the above) 
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner

Estimate: HK$12,000,000 - 18,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$10,000,000
Sold: HK$12,475,000

Lot 1027 | Wu Guanzhong | The Dahuo Stream, Oil on board
Created in 1972
44.2 x 36.2 cm

  • Important Private Asian Collection 

Estimate: HK$5,000,000 - 8,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$8,800,000
Sold: HK$11,023,000

Lot 1017 | Le Pho | The et Sympathie, Oil on canvas
131 x 195 cm

  • Freeman Fine Arts Philadelphia, 07 November 2010, lot 377
  • United Asian Auctioneers Hong Kong, 28 May 2011, lot 54
  • Acquired from the above sale by the present owner

Estimate: HK$3,800,000 - 6,800,000
Hammer Price: HK$8,500,000
Sold: HK$10,660,000

Auction Details:

Auction House: Sotheby’s Hong Kong
Sale: Modern Evening Auction
Date and Time: 7 October 2022 | 6:30pm (Hong Kong local time)
Number of Lots: 37
Sold: 34
Unsold: 3
Sale Rate: 92%
Sale Total: HK$457,271,000