Sanyu’s nude painting topped Sotheby’s HK$826-million Hong Kong auction

To a medley of gasps and applauses on Wednesday night, Sanyu’s 1952 nude painting Quatre Nus sold for an impressive HK$258 million, with buyer’s premium, at Sotheby’s Modern Art Evening Sale overshadowed by the resurgence of coronavirus in town. 

The sale took place at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre in a room much smaller than last year with a crowd notably thinner than usual; yet it was a resounding success, having achieved a respectable total of HK$826m, the second highest total for the category achieved by the auction house. Of the 36 lots offered, only one did not sell.

Sanyu’s nude featuring four women lounging naked on what is presumably a lawn, was hammered down at HK$225m after an intense 10-minute bidding, which started at HK$160m. 

The lot, guaranteed by the auction house, was pursued by four clients on telephones in small increments of HK$2m and HK$5m, before finally being sold to a telephone bidder aided by Sotheby's Asia commercial officer Nathan Drahi, the son of Sotheby's owner Patrick Drahi.

Of the 56 nude oil paintings produced in Sanyu’s lifetime, only six of them feature nude figures in groups of three or more. The work stands out from the pack not only because it is well-executed but also because it embraces cultural diversity, an approach rarely found among Chinese artists at the time.

Quatre nus (1952), oil on Masonite, 100 x 122 cm

Demand for Sanyu’s works has been rising in the past few years. His largest nude painting Five Nudes (1950) sold for a record HK$303m at Christie’s last November, hot on the heels of the HK$198m sale of his single nude painting Nu (1965) a month earlier. 

Two of Sanyu’s rare oil paintings on mirror, Femme nue étendue  (1929) and Panier de poires (1930s), sold for HK$10m and HK$5m in hammer price respectively. With fees, the result were HK$12.1m and HK$6.2m.

Femme nue etendue (1929), oil on mirror, 33 x 42 cm

Panier de poires (1930s), oil on mirror, 34 x 43 cm

Another highflier at the sale was Chu Teh-Chun’s 1983 abstract Les éléments confédérés, which sold for a record HK$113m with fees to a telephone bidder represented by Vinci Chang, Sotheby’s head of Modern Asian Art.

Once the bidding reached HK$95m, it came down to a battle between two bidders over the phone. The one represented by Chang won the lot for HK$98m hammer price. It toppled the previous record set in 2016, when Chu’s The Pioneers went for HK$91.8m at a Christie’s sale.

Executed between 1983 and 84, the swirling pentaptych abstract, measuring 650cm wide, is the only five-panel work Chu ever produced and the largest oil painting by the artist still in private hands. This bravura abstract in shades of green and blue conveys a whimsical resemblance of Chinses landscapes. It was conceived upon Chu’s return to China for the first time since his departure in 1949.The work is a tip of the hat to Beethoven's symphony Nº9, a masterpiece that Chu was listening when he was painting. 

Les éléments confédérés (1983), oil on canvas (pentaptych), 162 x 650 cm

Another lot by Chu, a calligraphic work done in 1998, was hammered down at HK$3.8m, well beyond the high estimate of HK$600,000. The result was HK$4.7m with fees. Profits from this lot will be donated to Han Hong Love Charity Foundation to help aid coronavirus recovery.

La Lune (1998), ink on paper, 40 x 122.3 cm

Meanwhile, an abstract 20.03.60 by revered Chinese painter Zao Wou-ki also put a giant exclamation point on the sale, when it was hammered down at HK$99m, overtripping its HK$85m high estimate.

Starting at HK$48m, bids climbed to HK$70m within seconds, then kept going in agonizingly slow HK$1m increment, until the hammer fell at HK$99m. The lot, as a result, sold for HK$115m with fees to a telephone bidder also represented by Vinci Chang. 

Done in 1960, the 162-cm-tall painting is conceived at the pinnacle of Zao’s “Hurricane Period” (1959 – 1972), during which he produced some 100 landscape abstracts marked by cursive calligraphy and a fusion of Chinese and Western painting styles featuring both ancient and modern elements.

20.03.60 (1960), oil on canvas, 130 x 162 cm 

Taking centre stage is an undulating terrain painted against a flatly blended background resembling thick mist. Below the white smudges, clusters of thick dark blue paint appear to resemble the mountain reflection on water. It imagines Chinese landscape through American post-war abstract expressionist techniques.

Meanwhile, a new record was set for Pang Jiun, when his 454-cm-wide Monet’s Garden (2009) fetched HK$7.3m with fees.

Strong sale at the auction comes amid concerns over the impact of the pandemic. Last week a triptych by Francis Bacon Triptych Inspired by the Oresteia of Aeschylus (1981) brought a staggering US$84.6 million with buyer’s premium at another Sotheby’s auction.

Other highlights included Wu Guanzhong’s Hometown of Lu Xun, which sold for a hammer price of HK$20m against its HK$12m high estimate, and a total of HK$24m with feesand Lin Fengmian's Lotus Lantern, which sold far ahead of its HK$5m high estimate for HK$8m hammer price. With fees, the result was HK$9.7m.

Top five lots:

Lot 1024 | Quatre nus (1952) by Sanyu
oil on Masonite, 100 by 122 cm


  • Hôtel Drouot, Paris, 1966
  • Collection of Yves Bideau (Jean François Bideau), Paris
  • Collection of Jean-Claude Riedel, Paris
  • Sotheby’s, Taipei, 10 April 1994, Lot 68
  • Yageo Collection, Taiwan
  • Christie’s, Hong Kong, 27 November 2005, Lot 185
  • Important Private Asian Collection

Estimate upon request
Sold: HK$258,341,000

Lot 1014 | Les éléments confédérés (1983) by Chu Teh-Chun
oil on canvas (pentaptych), 162 by 650 cm


  • Important Private European Collection

Estimate upon request
Sold: HK$113,688,000

Lot 1017 | 20.03.60 (1960) by Zao Wou-Ki
oil on canvas, 130 by 162 cm


  • Galerie de France, Paris
  • Private Collection, Monaco (acquired circa 1984)
  • Thence by descent to the present important private European collectors

Estimate: HK$65,000,000 – 85,000,000
Sold: HK$114,827,000

Lot 1018 | 19.11.59 by Zao Wou-Ki
oil on canvas, 114 by 146 cm


  • Kootz Gallery, New York, 1959
  • Acquired directly from the above by Upjohn Company, Kalamazoo, Michigan, on 1 September 1961
  • Private Asian Collection
  • Christie's, Hong Kong, 29 November 2009, Lot 1004
  • Acquired directly from the above by the present important private Asian collector

Estimate: HK$60,000,000 – 80,000,000
Sold: HK$110,840,500

Lot 1016 | 29.02.88 by Zao Wou-Ki
oil on canvas, 162 by 130 cm


  • Galerie Jan Krugier, Geneva 
  • Important Private European Collection 

Estimate: HK$30,000,000 – 50,000,000
Sold: HK$49,904,000

Auction summary

Auction house: Sotheby's Hong Kong
Sale: Sotheby's Modern Art Evening Sale
Sale date: 8 July, 2020
Lots offered: 36
Sold: 34
Sold by lots: 94%
Sale total: HK$826,213,000