Strong demand for Zhang Daqian continues in Hong Kong, with 3 masterpieces totalling US$16.1m at Sotheby's

Dubbed "The One in 500 Years" in China, Zhang Daqian (Chang Dai-chien, 1899-1983) is not only among China's most famous painters – but also one of the best-selling artists in the auction market, whose artworks command enormous prices internationally. 

This Hong Kong spring sale week, Sotheby's brought three masterpieces by him to the auction block, including Red Robe Avalokiteshvara, a Dunhuang art-inspired work from the Leshangtang collection; Hermit in Verdant Forest, a spectacular landscape from the Liu Hankun collection; and a late portrait titled Lady by the Lotus Screen from the collection of the family of Paul Chang, the artist's son. 

Attesting to the appetite for the important Chinese artist, all three pieces were successfully sold across three dedicated sales, bringing in a combined HK$126 million (US$16.1 million). 

The most sought-after piece of the three went to Red Robe Avalokiteshvara, a portrait completed in ink and colour on cloth, which had been cherished by Zhang for decades and through war years. After fierce competition, it was hammered for nearly three times its estimate at HK$65 million, fetching HK$77.5 million (US$9.9 million) with buyers' premium. 

Red Robe Avalokiteshvara hammered for HK$65 million after nearly 40 bids

Lot 121 | Zhang Daqian (Chang Dai-chien, 1899-1983) | Red Robe Avalokiteshvara, Ink and colour on cloth, hanging scroll
Signed, inscribed, with 3 seals of the artist
188 x 91.4 cm

  • Acquired from the artist in early 1980s 

Estimate: HK$22,000,000 - 30,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$65,000,000
Sold: HK$77,575,000 (around US$9.9 million) (Sold to Senior Consultant in Hong Kong C.K. Cheung's client on the phone with paddle number L0082 )

In the Western art world, Zhang has been hailed as “The Picasso of the East”. While the two twentieth-century masters' painterly styles are distinctly different, they are similar in that they are both chameleon artists adept at a variety of styles, highly innovative yet deeply rooted in traditions, and prodigious in artistic output.

Born in 1899 to an artistic family, Zhang was a gifted artist from a young age. As many artists do, he began by studying and imitating the works of China's ancient masters, which gave him a firm foundation in a broad range of classical Chinese ink techniques and a reputation as one of the most gifted art forgers. 

Following his first trip to Japan where he learned weaving and dyeing, he became a world traveller, journeying from Asia to the Americas and continental Europe.

In his sojourns all over the world, he absorbed a great variety of artistic influence – most significantly the ancient Buddhist art in the temple caves of Dunhuang in northwest China. There he spent nearly three years making copies of the murals, figures rendered in vermilion, azurite, and malachite – colours that featured prominently in his free brushwork abstract landscapes and meticulous gongbi portraits of a lady. 

(Left) The present lot; (right): a Buddhist mural painting in Dunhuang 

Tsai I-Ming, the owner of the Leshantang Collection

Painted at the height of Zhang's artistic prowess in the meticulous gongbi style, Red Robe Avalokiteshvara was one of the artist's most treasured paintings, which he kept in his personal collection until a fateful visit more than three decades later. 

In 1981, Tsai I-Ming, the owner of the Leshantang collection, saw a work titled Dragon Maiden Worshipping Buddha (1948) by Zhang at Sotheby's Hong Kong. The founding member and chairman of the prestigious Ching Wan Society in Taiwan, Tsai had been an influential connoisseur and collector of Chinese imperial porcelain by then, yet had not delved into the category of Chinese painting. 

Struck by the vivid colour and delicately detailed style, he decided that he must take the artwork home, ultimately paying HK$111,000 for it – three times the painting's estimate. This caused a sensation in the auction world and garnered widespread media attention: it came with a sky-high price and yet someone speculated that it might be a forgery.

With the work being his first purchase of a painting, Tsai became very anxious and embarked upon a quest to meet the artist himself to seek reassurance. 

Dragon Maiden Worshipping Buddha (1948) | Sold: HK$29.49 million,  Sotheby's Hong Kong, 2023

The encounter turned out to be a huge success for Tsai: Not only did the artist confirm the authenticity of the painting, but he also brought out Red Robe Avalokiteshvara, the present lot, to demonstrate how the special red mineral pigment was applied to his other works of the same period.

Overwhelmed by the revelation, Tsai immediately fell in love with Red Robe Avalokiteshvara and begged to buy it. However, the artist declined as it was one of his personal favourites, which he had cherished and retained even during times of war and turmoil.

Tsai persisted though, and the artist was eventually moved by his sincerity and, seeing him as a true connoisseur, sold it to him for US$100,000.

Interestingly, Zhang also asked if he would be interested in splashed-colour paintings of similar value. Those were indeed masterpieces and perhaps more lucrative in the second market, but the collector respectfully declined, citing a lack of understanding in the appreciation of this more modern approach to Chinese ink painting.

Zhang Daqian brought out the present work to Tsai I-Ming

Far from being driven by an investment mindset, the assemblage of the Leshantang collection is a deeply personal journey steeped in anecdotes lying behind every acquisition. 

In 2023, part of his collection was offered in a dedicated auction at Sotheby's Hong Kong. Reaffirming Tsai's connoisseurial depth, numerous lots soared above estimates, eventually achieving a sale total of HK$216 million (around US$27.7 million). 

The abovementioned Dragon Maiden Worshipping Buddha, for instance, sold for HK$29.49 million (US$3.78 million) against an estimate of HK$10 million. 

Lot 8041 | Zhang Daqian (Chang Dai-chien, 1899-1983) | Hermit in Verdant Forest, Ink and colour on paper, hanging scroll
Signed, dated 1947, with 2 seals of the artist. Titleslip by artist himself
236.2 x 85.5 cm
Estimate: HK$25,000,000 - 40,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$25,000,000
Sold: HK$30,700,000 (sold to a room bidder) (around US$3.9 million)

The verdant landscape came from the collection of Liu Hankun (1912-1958), the eldest son of Liu Guojun (1887-1978), a prominent figure in China’s modern textile industry who had a keen interest in collecting  Chinese paintings and calligraphy. 

Influenced by his father, Liu Hankun not only carried on to expand his family's textile empire but also developed a deep passion for traditional culture. During his time in Chongqing, he was active in the art scene, often engaging with renowned artists such as Zhang Daqian,  Xu Beihong, and Fu Baoshi.

Hermit in Verdant Forest hammered for HK$25 million

Zhang Daqian (third-right) in 1946

The present was marked No.1 with a price tag of eight million in the 1947 Zhang Daqian exhibition in Shanghai

In 1947, Zhang Daqian held the "Exhibition of Recent Works by Zhang Daqian" in Shanghai, showcasing 82 pieces of his fresh paintings. Anticipation for this showcase was palpable, as he was already one of the biggest names in China then. 

While everything had almost been sold before the exhibition officially opened, this Hermit in Verdant Forest took the spotlight, widely covered in newspaper – it was marked as the No.1 work with a price tag of a whopping eight million. 

It was where Liu Hankun acquired the present lot, and it has then been in the hands of his family for over seventy years, still maintaining its original mounting in excellent condition.

Lot 3021 | Zhang Daqian (Chang Dai-chien) | Lady by the Lotus Screen, Ink and colour on gold cardboard, framed
Signed, dated 1966, inscribed, with a dedication and 3 seals of the artist
60 x 44.8 cm

  • Acquired in Hong Kong in September, 1992

Estimate: HK$10,000,000 - 15,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$15,000,000
Sold: HK$18,600,000(Sold to Head of Chinese Paintings Department Carmen Ip's client on the phone with paddle number L0085)

An unusually modern-looking portrait by Zhang Daqian, Lady by the Lotus Screen features an anonymous fashionable lady – his daughter-in-law, or the "Shangguan Tsinghua" mentioned in the inscription, who was a celebrity active in the 1950s and once closely related to the artist.

The third son of Zhang, Paul Chang (1931-2017) had stayed with his father overseas for the longest time among his brothers and sisters. With knowledge of Chinese, he became his artist father's assistant, taking care of everything at home and helping prepare painting materials. 

According to him, the lady in the painting was reminiscent of both his wife and Shangguan Tsinghua. Therefore, when the work was completed, he asked one of his father's students to make a copy and kept the fake portrait secretly.

It was in 1992 that he could finally have this genuine Lady by the Lotus Screen, which he won at an auction in Hong Kong.

Other highlight sales of Zhang Daqian's work at Sotheby's Hong Kong:

Lot 3098 | Zhang Daqian (Chang Dai-chien, 1899-1983) | Landscapes of Mount Huang, Ink and colour on paper, album of 12 leaves, framed
Signed, dated 1933, inscribed, with 1 to 3 seals of the artist on each leaf and 1 collector's seal. Annotation by Wang Yuan
Each 14.5 x 37 cm

  • Formerly from the collection of famous Chinese painting and calligraphy collector, He Guanwu “Tianxi Shuwu”
  • Acquired in Hong Kong in November, 1996
  • From the M K Lau collection

Estimate: HK$8,000,000 - 12,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$8,000,000
Sold: HK$10,130,000

Lot 3141 | Zhang Daqian (Chang Dai-chien, 1899-1983) | Lotus Pond after Rain, Ink and colour on paper, hanging scroll
Signed, dated 1962, with a total of 4 seals of the artist. Titled on the outer box by artist himself
179 x 88.5 cm

  • Sotheby's Hong Kong, Seventeen Paintings from the Collection of Chai Sian Kwan, October 2001, Lot 97

Estimate: HK$3,000,000 - 5,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$4,300,000
Sold: HK$5,461,000

Lot 3087 | Zhang Daqian (Chang Dai-chien, 1899-1983) | Verdant Mountains in Sichuan, Ink and colour on paper, framed
Signed, dated 1949, inscribed, with a dedication and 4 seals of the artist
69.5 x 44 cm
Estimate: HK$3,000,000 - 6,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$3,000,000
Sold: HK$3,810,000

Lot 3127 | Zhang Daqian (Chang Dai-chien, 1899-1983) | Encounter in Verdant Mountains, Ink and colour on silk, hanging scroll
Signed, dated 1942, inscribed, with 2 seals of the artist and 1 collector's seal
135.3 x 65.8 cm

  • The Edward T. Chow Family Collection

Estimate: HK$700,000 - 900,000
Hammer Price: HK$2,600,000
Sold: HK$3,302,000

Lot 3138 | Zhang Daqian (Chang Dai-chien, 1899-1983) | Narcissus, Ink and colour on gold paper, framed
Signed, dated 1951, with a dedication and 2 seals of the artist
26.7 x 24 cm

  • Sotheby's Hong Kong, Fine Chinese Paintings, April 2010, Lot 704

Estimate: HK$700,000 - 1,400,000
Hammer Price: HK$2,000,000
Sold: HK$2,540,000

Lot 3012 | Zhang Daqian (Chang Dai-chien, 1899-1983) | Sailing by Lush Shore, Ink and colour on cardboard, framed
Signed, dated 1957, with 3 seals of the artist
36.2 x 30.1 cm
Estimate: HK$500,000 - 1,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$650,000
Sold: HK$825,500

Auction Details:

Auction House: Sotheby's Hong Kong

Sale: Hidden Treasures from the Liu Hankun Family Collection
Date: 8 April 2024
Number of Lots: 95
Sold: 71
Unsold: 24
Sale Rate: 74.4%
Sale Total: HK$52,316,670

Sale: Fine Chinese Paintings
Date: 8 April 2024
Number of Lots: 165
Sold: 148
Unsold: 17
Sale Rate: 89.6% 
Sale Total: HK$167,071,390

Sale: The Leshantang Collection (II) – Treasures of Chinese Art from the Tsai I-Ming Collection
Date: 9 April
Number of Lots: 68
Sold: 64
Unsold: 4
Sale Rate: 94.1% 
Sale Total: HK$155,119,930