Sanyu’s Nude Painting Which Once Broke The Artist's Auction Record On Offer Again After 16 Years

Sanyu is one of the most sought-after names in the Asian art market in recent years. The Chinese-French artist who is hailed as the “Chinese Matisse” has a net-worth of almost US$40m with his nude and flower paintings selling for record-smashing prices in Hong Kong. 

In the upcoming October, Sotheby’s will present both Sanyu’s nude and flower masterpieces at Hong Kong’s Autumn Sale, one of which broke the artist’s auction record in 2004- his painting Nu. The work which makes use of Chinese ink wash painting techniques has surfaced once again in the art market after 16 years. 

Sanyu (1895-1966) Nu, oil on masonite

Executed in: 1950-1960s
Size: 125 x 95.5 cm

  • Private Collection, Paris (Acquired directly from the artist in 1966)
  • Jean-Claude Riedel, Paris (Sold: Sotheby’s, Hong Kong, mid 1990s, Private Sale)
  • Yageo Collection, Taiwan (Sold: Christie’s, Hong Kong, The Yageo Foundation Collection Sale, 31 October 2004, lot 755)
  • Acquired directly from the above sale by the present important private Asian collector


  • Paris, Lévy Residence, Sanyu, 17 December 1965
  • Taipei, National Museum of History, In Search of a Homeland – The Art of San Yu, 13 October – 2 December 2001
  • Paris, Musée des art asiatiques Guimet, Sanyu: l'écriture du corps (Language of the Body), 16 June - 13 September 2004

Estimate upon request

Sanyu (1895-1966) Fleurs dans un pot bleu et blanc, oil on masonite

Execued in: 1950s
Size: 91 x 62 cm

Provenance (organised by The Value):

  • Raymond Toupenet, Paris
  • Jean-Claude Riedel, Paris
  • Dimensions Art Center, Taipei
  • Private collection, Taipei
  • 14 November 2004, Ravenel International Art Group, Lot no.133, sold for NT$20,370,000
  • Private collection, Asia
  • 29 November 2009, Christie’s Hong Kong, Lot no.1009, sold for HK$34,820,000


  • Taipei, Dimensions Art Center, Sanyu, 18 - 30 April 1992
  • Taipei, National Museum of History, In Search of a Homeland – The Art of San Yu, 13 October – 2 December 2001

Estimate: HK$50,000,000 - 70,000,000

Sanyu and his friend photographed in Paris

One of Sanyu’s earlier nude paintings

Sanyu was one of the first-generation Chinese artists who studied in France, having migrated to Paris in the 1920s. He favoured nudes, flowers as well as animals, and started doing nude studies shortly after arriving in Paris. For forty years, up until his death, the artist continued to paint nudes which portray the changes that he underwent throughout his career. 

Sanyu’s earlier paintings were of joyful, boisterous colours like pastel whites and pinks that filled them with vitality. By the 1950s and 1960s, Sanyu no longer painted nudes in smooth, elegant lines as he did in the 1930s. Instead, he employed stark contrasts and saturated tones to create contour lines that verge on the angular, manifesting the expressiveness of the human body to the fullest.

The present Nu on offer at Sotheby’s and Nu (1965) which sold for HK$198m last year are some of the representative works of Sanyu’s nude studies created in the 1950s and 1960s. The two are highly resemblant in style. 

Nu (1965), sold last year at Sotheby’s 

Nu, on offer at Sotheby’s in the upcoming October

Nu was hammered down at Sotheby’s for HK172m and sold for HK197m (over US$25m)

In both paintings, Sanyu adopts a highly unusual bottom-up perspective that exaggerates the nude’s lower body and genitals. More than simply presenting the beauty of a woman’s body, he exaggerates and transforms it into something akin to a traditional Asian landscape painting.

If in the West the human body was regarded as a manifestation of divinity, then in the East such a concept was found in natural landscapes. By combining the aesthetics of both traditions, Sanyu saw a path forward for each.

Both Nu paintings were the highlights of a major 2004 exhibition- Sanyu: l’ecriture du corps at the Musée Guimet in Paris. And the importance of the paintings lies in the fact that both of them had once set Sanyu’s auction record. 

Nu once belonged to Taiwanese billionaire Pierre Chen’s Yageo Foundation

Nu (1965) was sold last year at Sotheby’s for HK$197m (over US$25m), a staggering amount which marks Sanyu’s auction record. (His new auction record has since been set by Five Nudes which realised HK$303m.)

And for today’s Nu, after being exhibited at Musée Guimet in 2004, it was put on offer at Christie’s Hong Kong. The work was offered as part of the collection of Taiwanese billionaire Pierre Chen’s Yageo Foundation with an estimate of HK$4m-5m. In the end, it fetched HK$7.34m (US$947,000) and became the most expensive Sanyu sold. 

Comparing the sizes of the two nudes, Nu, on offer today, measures at 125 x 95.5 cm, slightly smaller than Nu sold in 2019 which has the dimensions 122.5 x 135 cm.

The auction house has put an estimate on request for the work. The painting is a premium lot, and is expected to fetch in the region of no less than HK$100m

Fleurs dans un pot bleu et blanc

“I think Sanyu was himself a potted plant, an Eastern potted plant gracing the Parisian garden.” Wu Guanzhong, excerpt from About Sanyu

Flowers is a theme that Sanyu painted under for his entire life. From the 1930s to the 1950s, under the fertile artistic soil cultivated by the artist, Sanyu’s chrysanthemums thrived and bloomed into the most enduring subject among his flower paintings. 

Sanyu, who was well-versed in traditional Chinese literature since a young age, understood the high aesthetic value of chrysanthemum. He would return to this theme particularly during the 1940s and ’50s, frequently depicting chrysanthemums perhaps to seek encouragement and reassurance in the flower’s gentlemanly spirit. Fleurs dans un pot bleu et blanc is not just a still-life painting but represents the artist’s own inner reflections.

Fleurs dans un pot bleu et blanc was on the cover page of Christie’s catalogue when it went on offer in 2009

The painting first belonged to French art dealer Raymond Toupenet, before landing in Jean-Claude Riedel’s hands, an important collector of Sanyu’s artwork. It then joined Dimensions Art Center in Taipei as part of their collection. In November 2004, only two weeks after the present Nu was sold, Fleurs dans un pot bleu et blanc appeared on the auction stage with Ravenel International Art Group, carrying an estimate of NT$9.5m-12m. It was sold for NT$20.37m (US$701,000). 

In November 2009, the painting once again made its way onto the auction stage, but with Christie’s this time. It was also the catalogue cover for the sale which was titled “Asian 20th Century & Contemporary Art (Evening Sale)”. The work realised a whopping HK$34.82m (US$4.49m), soaring through its estimate of HK$8m-12m. Within 5 years, the worth of the work has risen by over 7 times. 

Chrysanthèmes blanches dans un pot bleu et blanc gained the title of “Sanyu’s most expensive still life” in July this year

Very soon, Fleurs dans un pot bleu et blanc will appear at Sotheby’s Hong Kong’s auction stage with an estimate of HK$50m-70m (US$6.45m-9.03m).

The expensive estimate is no surprise to the auction world as previous records show that Sanyu’s flower still lifes has grown immensely in value. In July this year, Chrysanthèmes blanches dans un pot bleu et blanc was sold by Christie’s Hong Kong for HK$191m (US$24.6m), a price far exceeding its estimate of HK$60m-80m. The painting gained the title of “Sanyu’s most expensive still life”

Chrysanthèmes blanches dans un pot bleu et blanc was once sold in May 2005 by Christie’s Hong Kong in a sale dedicated to the collection of Yageo Foundation, half a year after Fleurs dans un pot bleu et blanc was sold. Back then, the work realised HK$7.73m. Today, its value is 24 times more expensive than it was 15 years ago. 

Wu Guanzhong Scenery of Northern China

Wu Guanzhong Scenery of Guilin

The above works will be on offer at Sotheby’s on 5 October at their Modern Art Evening Sale. The auction house will also present Wu Guanzhong’s Scenery of Northern China and Scenery of Guilin in the same sale. The former is a premium lot with an estimate upon request while the latter is estimated at HK$18m-20m (US$2.32m-2.58m). 

Auction Details

Auction house: Sotheby’s Hong Kong
Sale: Modern Art Evening Sale
Preview location: Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre
Preview date: 3-5 October 2020
Sale location: To be confirmed
Sale date: 5 October 2020