US$32.3m Pink Lotuses on Gold Screen becomes Zhang Daqian's 3rd most expensive painting sold at auction

On the occasion of Sotheby's 50th anniversary in Asia, Sotheby's Hong Kong brings four back-to-back auctions on the evening of 5 April. Kicking off the sale series was the auction debut of a rare two-panel gold screen by Chinese master Zhang Daqian, which was presented at a stand-alone sale. 

One of the only six known examples of lotus on screen by the artist, the lot was hammered at HK$216.5 million against an opening bid of HK$150 million. With buyer's premium, the lot fetched HK$251.6 million (around US$32.3 million), becoming the artist's third most expensive painting to sell at auction. 

Pink Lotuses on Gold Screen hammered at HK$216.5 million

Lot 5004 | Zhang Daqian | Pink Lotuses on Gold Screen, Splashed ink and colour on gold paper, two-panel screen
Signed YUANWENG, dated mid-autumn festival of guichou year, 1973, with six seals of the artist
170 x 176 cm

  • From the Family Collection of C.S. Loh (1913-1992), who acquired the work directly from the artist, referred by the artist’s agent Li Zulai and his wife Li Deying

Expected to fetch in excess of HK$200 million (US$25.5 million)
Hammer Price: HK$251,648,500
Sold: HK$251,648,500 (around US$32.3 million)

Auction House: Sotheby's Hong Kong
Sale: 50th Anniversary Zhang Daqian ‘Pink Lotuses on Gold Screen’
Date: 5 April 2023
Number of Lot: 1

Wielding the gavel for the single-lot auction was Florence Ho, Head of Day and Online Sales, Contemporary Art. 

As auctioneer opened bidding at HK$150 million, the price climbed steadily in HK$10 increments, until Nicolas Chow (Chairman of Sotheby's Asia) jumped in at HK$180 million and placed a bid HK$210 million – which could possibly be the irrevocable bid. 

Following that was a 20-minute face-off between the bidders represented by Wendy Lin (Chairman of Asia) and Nicole Ching (Client Liaison & European Client Strategy, Global Business Development). In the end, Ching's client with paddle number L0003 won the lot with a final bid of HK$216.5 million.

Auctioneer Florence Ho

Nichole Ching won the present lot for her client

A household name in China, Zhang Daqian is not only amongst the most popular Asian painters, but also one of the best-selling artists in the auction market, whose works command enormous prices internationally.

With the present lot selling for HK$251.6 million (around US$32.3 million), the top five auction results achieved by the master are now reshuffled as follows:

  1. Landscape after Wang Ximeng, Ink and colour on silk | Sold: HK$370,495,000 (US$47 million), Sotheby's Hong Kong, 2022
  2. Peach Blossom Spring, Splashed ink and colour on paper | Sold: HK$270,680,000 (US$34.7 million), Sotheby's Hong Kong, 2016
  3. Pink Lotuses on Gold Screen, Splashed ink and colour on gold paper, two-panel screen | HK$251,648,500 (around US$32.3 million), Sotheby's Hong Kong, 2023
  4. Autumn Morning, Splashed ink and colour on paper | Sold: RMB 195,500,000 (US$30.7 million), China Guardian Beijing, 2021
  5. Mist at Dawn, Splashed ink and colour on paper | Sold: HK$214,631,000 (US$27.6 million), Sotheby's Hong Kong, 2021

Landscape after Wang Ximeng | Sold: HK$370,495,000 (US$47 million), Sotheby's Hong Kong, 2022

Peach Blossom Spring | Sold: HK$270,680,000 (US$34.7 million), Sotheby's Hong Kong, 2016

Carmen Ip | Head of Chinese Paintings Department at Sotheby's

While Zhang Daqian is well-known for his ability to juggle virtually every genres of Chinese painting – from flowers and birds to figures and landscapes – lotus as one of the artist's favourite flowers has remained a recurring theme in his oeuvre, one that he had painted throughout his artistic career spanning more than 60 years.

Painted in 1973 in California, Pink Lotuses on Gold Screen stands as an outstanding demonstration of both Zhang's mastery of skills and the creative energy of the later stage of his career. After he finished the painting, he added the seal ‘What the heart wishes, the hand accomplishes’ in the lower left corner, showing his satisfaction with the piece.

Liberating himself from the fine lines and keenly observed details that had so enriched the art of his early years, here, he focuses on atmosphere and color rather than the depictions of specific scenes. Layered by different intensities of splashed ink, the dark lotus leaves, though dominated half of the screen, are surprisingly soft and mellow, going harmoniously with the composition to conjure a vivid view of a sumptuous watery lotus pond.

Looking closer to the splendid gold screen, within magnificence unfolds a delicate tenderness. Amidst rich layers of ink, the flourishing lotuses reveal themselves through a bluish-green nebula of saturated color, elegantly radiating a sense of beauty and purity.

Details on the present lot

Details on the present lot

Artist's seal on the present lot

Meticulous with his choice of painting materials, Zhang Daqian spared no expense in acquiring exquisite brushes, pigments, ink and paper from around the world. 

For the present lot, the folding screen was made in Japan and later mounted with gold paper, which is already of great value itself – not to mention the enormous logistics cost of bringing the fragile screen all the way from Japan to California more than fifty years ago. 

Furthermore, the gold leaf has a smooth surface that does not absorb water or ink well, so controlling the tone of colours is much more difficult than using xuan paper. The movements of the ink and colour also leave distinct traces on gold, so even the slightest mistake would have ruined the painting.

Therefore, these screens lined with gold leaves remains a rare medium in the artist's oeuvre, which he reserved only for very important people or occasions. 

Zhang Daqian had always been fascinated by lotuses

Crimson Lotuses on Gold Screen, splashed colour on gold screen, 1975 | Sold: HK$20.2 million (around US$2.6 million), Sotheby's Hong Kong in 2002

While Zhang rarely executes on Japanese screens – only six such large-scale screens are publicly known – a comparable screen with lotus as the subject was sold at Sotheby's Hong Kong in 2002 for a then-record of HK$20.2 million (US$2.6 million). Measuring 168 x 369 cm, that painting, Six Panel Gold Screen of Splashed Lotuses, is similar in height to the present screen but nearly doubles in width. 

Both splashed-colour paintings, the present two-panel screen is much more subtle in the use of colours, whereas the six-panel work sees a luxurious use of azurite and malachite pigments, giving the lotus leaves a rich vibrancy against the lustre of gold. 

Details on the present lot

Details on the present lot

Details on the present lot

Fresh to market, the present lot came from the family collection of C.S. Loh (1913-1992), who acquired the work directly from Zhang Daqian through the artist's agent. Loh, originally from Eastern China, was a successful businessman who ran a textile business in Shanghai. Following his father's footsteps, he managed a cotton mills for renowned entrepreneur Yung Tsoong-King. 

After relocating to Hong Kong in 1947, he founded the Wyler Textiles Limited, which quickly prospered and became an industry leader in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1979, he was appointed to be the chairman of the Hong Kong Cotton Spinners Association.

As an avid art collector, Loh had a particular interest in Chinese paintings and calligraphy. He co-founded the illustrious Min Chiu Society in 1960 with other like-minded collectors in the business communities. It continues to be a very active society of collectors in the present day.

The present work has been treasured by the family of C.S. Loh for half a decade