Two chefs-d’oeuvre from East and West could realise US$28.9 million in Hong Kong

During this Spring season, blockbuster lots from Asia and Europe will star at Sotheby’s Hong Kong Modern Evening Auction.

Pablo Picasso's Dora Maar portrait will feature, and is expected to fetch HK$138 million (around US$17.5 million) dollars. Looted by Germany during World War Two, the painting depicts the Spanish Master's lover and muse during the 1930s and 1940s.

Chinese modern art pioneer, Wu Guanzhong’s Plum Blossoms is equally iconic. A rare oil painting created during the Cultural Revolution, it is estimated between HK$90 and 120 million (around US$11.4 to 15.3 million) dollars. Together, this pair of masterpieces could fetch US$28.9 million dollars.

Pablo and Dora Maar

Pablo Picasso | Dora Maar, Oil on panel

Created in 1939
60 x 45.5 cm

  • Paul Rosenberg, Paris & New York (seized by the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg on 5 September 1941 and transferred to the Jeu de Paume on 6th September 1941. Restituted to Paul Rosenberg on 14 September 1945)
  • Mr & Mrs Vladimir Golschmann, St. Louis (acquired from the above)
  • Saidenberg Gallery, Inc., New York (acquired by 1958)
  • William Rand, New York (acquired from the above and sold: Christie's, New York, 19 February 1998, Lot 30)
  • Private Collection, United States (acquired from the above sale)
  • Private Collection (acquired from the above in 2014)
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner

Estimate upon request (Expected to fetch around US$17.5 million)

During World War Two, the Germans established the Rosenberg Task Force (ERR). Led by chief ideologue, Alfred Rosenberg, the force plundered cultural property from "enemies of the State" – particularly Jewish people and Freemasons. These operations were carried out in occupied European countries – such as France, Italy and the Netherlands.

After the occupation of Paris, EER initially used the basement in the Louvre to store the art relics. But due to the large number of artworks, they were moved to nearby Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume – as a temporary warehouse – before being transported to Germany. Looted by the ERR in 1941, Dora Maar was eventually returned to Paul Rosenberg after the war. A prominent French-Jewish art dealer, he represented works by Masters such as Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Georges Braque.

The German Army moved looted art relics including this present Dora Maar painting  from the Louvre to the nearby Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume

After the war, the Allies recovered most of the looted artworks

Throughout his career, Picasso painted portraits of his lovers. In the sensitivity and passion of his brushwork, viewers can see the changes in his thoughts, style, and worldview throughout different periods.

Dora Maar was Picasso’s lover and muse during the 1930s and 1940s, and a photographer who was 26 years his junior. She inspired Picasso’s art with her unique charms and creativity. The love story between Maar and Picasso may be one of the most dramatic in 20th-century art history. When they met in 1935, Picasso was in a relationship with lover, Marie-Therese Walter; and still married to first wife, Olga Khokhlova.

It was around 1937 when Maar became Picasso’s main companion. Both strong characters, their love affair was passionate and turbulent, the emotional intensity of which is suggested by the present work’s fiery background. Although the couple had frequent conflicts, Maar remained a constant companion and supporter of Picasso, serving as a source of artistic and intellectual stimulation and challenge – she even documented the Spanish artist’s creation of the world-renowned masterpiece, Guernica (1937).

During their nine-year relationship, Picasso repeatedly painted Maar – including Weeping Woman (1937; Collection of the Tate Modern, London). His portraits of Maar, created before and after World War Two, are some of his most renowned works of the period.

Dora Maar

Picasso's Portrait de Dora Maar (1939)|Reina Sofia National Art Museum, Madrid

Picasso's Tete de femme (Dora Maar) (1939)|Guggenheim Museum, New York

Created in 1939, Maar is depicted as striking a proud pose – she has her hand on her face – adding a sense of contemplation and mysteriousness. This contrast extends to the blue shirt she wears against the red background.

Maar appears with a complete and beautiful face, while exuding an air of elegance. Her face is captivating and full of character, with eyes gazing intently at the viewer. In semi-abstract outlines, this portrait conveys an irresistible pathos and moving passion. While the painting expresses Picasso’s love for Maar, it also symbolises the tense atmosphere of the larger historical context through their tumultuous romance.

Portraits of Dora Maar created in the same year are part of prominent collections:

  1. Portrait de Dora Maar (1939), 60 x 45 cm|Reina Sofia National Art Museum, Madrid
  2. Tete de femme (Dora Maar) (1939), 59.8 x 45.1 cm|Guggenheim Museum, New York
  3. Femme assise, robe bleue (1939), 73 x 60 cm|Christie's New York, 2017|Sold: US$45,047,500

Picasso's auction record in Asia is Femme Accroupie (1954) – a painting depicting the artist's last lover and second wife, Jacqueline Roque. It was sold at Sotheby's Hong Kong in October 2021 for HK$191.6 million (around US$24.6 million) dollars with buyer’s premium.

Picasso's Femme assise, robe bleue (1939) | Christie's New York, 2017

Picasso's Femme Accroupie (1954) | Sotheby's Hong Kong, 2021

Wu Guanzhong | Plum Blossoms, Oil on canvas laid on board

Created in 1973
89.6 x 70 cm
Provenance (Amended by The Value):

  • Original owner acquired directly from the artist (sold: Heritage Arts, Taipei, 15 June 1997, Lot 76)
  • Private Asian Collection (sold: Sotheby’s, Hong Kong, 4 April 2015, Lot 1006, Sold: HK$66,840,000)
  • Important Private Asian Collection (acquired directly from the above sale)

Estimate: HK$90,000,000 – 120,000,000

Marking the 100th anniversary of Chinese modern art pioneer, Wu Guanzhong’s birthday, his painting Lotus Flowers was the cover lot at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in 2019. Estimated at HK$15 million dollars, it became the fourth painting by the artist that exceeded HK$100 million dollars. In the end, it sold for HK$130.7 million (around US$16.6 million) dollars.

Due to scarcity of materials during the Cultural Revolution, Wu Guanzhong painted mostly on wooden boards refashioned from small blackboards and reserved canvas for his finest works. He produced around 30 paintings on canvas during these difficult times. Among them, paintings exceeding one metre were almost all commissioned by museums or the national government.

Wu's Lotus Flowers (1974)

Wu and his wife in front of plum blossom trees at Baihua Mountain, Beijing, 1996

Created in 1973, Wu returned from Beijing to Li Village. The universities were closed, so Wu, unhindered by teaching responsibilities, travelled to the outskirts of Beijing in order to paint from life. During the second half of 1973, he received a government assignment to travel south and collect material for Ten Thousand Kilometres of the Yangtze River – limiting his time in Beijing to only a few short months.

Wu's artistry originates in painting from life, and painting from life originates in observing reality. The subject of Plum Blossoms is the sort of plum tree that can be found in the Beijing suburbs, but the image presented in the painting also recalls the composition of traditional Chinese paintings.

Bottom left section of Wu's Plum Blossoms painting

The fruits of these early-planted seeds are evident in his oil paintings from the 1970s. In addition to the shape of the trunk and the sturdy yet pliable appearance of the branches, he also employed a traditional Chinese painting method known as the iron-wire stroke. But the large branches in Plum Blossoms do not resemble the single-stroke brushwork of ink-wash painting that relies on wrist strength. Rather, they are composed of numerous short horizontal strokes that reflect Wu's individual style and the viscosity of oil paints.

Plum Blossoms was auctioned twice – the first time was in Taipei in 1997, while the second time was in Hong Kong in 2015. Estimated between HK$35 and 45 million dollars, it fetched HK$66.8 million dollars at Sotheby’s Hong Kong. This time, the painting will be sold at Sotheby's Hong Kong again. If the hammer is dropped within the estimated range, it will exceed HK$100 million dollars with buyer’s premium. 

Central section of Wu's Plum Blossoms painting

Bottom right section of Wu's Plum Blossoms painting

Other highlight lots:

Chu Teh-chun | Vent debout, Oil on canvas (diptych)

Created in 1989
200 x 360 cm

  • Important Private European Collection

Estimate: HK$20,000,000 – 30,000,000

Pierre-Auguste Renoir | Baigneuse accoudee, Oil on canvas

Created in 1882
54 x 40.5 cm
Provenance (Amended by The Value):

  • Arsene Alexandre, Paris ((probably) acquired from the artist and sold: Galerie Georges Petit, Paris, 18-19 May 1903, Lot 51)
  • Gabriel Cognacq, Paris (purchased at the above sale)
  • Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, Paris (no. 14080) (acquired from the above on 15 March 1905)
  • Galerie Georges Petit, Paris (acquired from the above)
  • Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, Paris (no. 14419) (acquired from the above on 7 July 1905)
  • Paul Cassirer, Berlin (acquired from the above on 21 September 1909)
  • Julius Stern, Berlin (acquired from the above on 9 November 1909. Sold by his estate: Galerie Paul Cassirer, Berlin, 22 May 1916, Lot 80)
  • Leo Blumenreich, Berlin (purchased at the above sale)
  • Alfred Hausammann, Zurich (acquired by 1955)
  • Mrs Behrens-Hausammann, Switzerland (by descent from the above circa 2001 and sold: Christie's, London, 6 February 2013, Lot 24, Sold: £1,721,250)
  • Important Private Asian Collection (acquired directly from the above sale)

Estimate: HK$18,000,000 – 28,000,000

Zao Wou-ki | 11.06.93, Oil on canvas

Created in 1993
130 x 97 cm

  • Private Collection, Europe (sold: Sotheby's, Hong Kong, 3 October 2011, Lot 785)
  • Private Collection (acquired directly from the above sale and sold: Beijing Council International Auction, Beijing, 4 December 2017, Lot 3797)
  • Important Private Asian Collection (acquired directly from the above sale)

Estimate: HK$13,000,000 – 20,000,000

Marc Chagall | Les pivoines, Oil, tempera and sawdust on canvas

Created in 1969
92 x 73 cm

  • Galerie Maeght, Paris
  • Private Collection, Switzerland (acquired directly from the above circa 1975)
  • Private Collection, Switzerland (thence by descent to the present owner)

Estimate: HK$12,000,000 – 18,000,000

Wu Guanzhong | Village of Xishuangbanna, Oil on canvas

Created in 1994
76.5 x 60.5 cm
Provenance (Amended by The Value):

  • Private Collection (acquired directly from the artist)
  • Private Asian Collection (sold: Christie's, Hong Kong, 25 November 2017, Lot 7, Sold: HK$16,900,000)
  • Important Private Asian Collection (acquired directly from the above sale)

Estimate: HK$12,000,000 – 22,000,000

Zao Wou-ki | 03.12.67, Oil on canvas

Created in 1967
59.5 x 81 cm

  • Henry Clay Frick II, New York (acquired directly from the artist in 1968)
  • Private Collection, New York (by descent from the above and sold: Sotheby's, Paris, 5 June 2019, Lot 20)
  • Important Private Asian Collection (acquired directly from the above sale)

Estimate: HK$12,000,000 – 20,000,000

Auction Details:

Auction House: Sotheby’s Hong Kong
Sale: Modern Evening Auction
Date and Time: 27 April 2022 | 6pm (Hong Kong local time)
Number of lots: 37