A Six-Feet-Tall Chinese Painting Carries Estimate of US$10m, Highest Ever at Sotheby’s Fine Chinese Paintings

For the valuation of Chinese Paintings, Sotheby’s tends to make prudent estimates. However, for the coming fall auction, Sotheby’s presents a painting that has the highest estimate ever at their Fine Chinese Paintings Sale. It is a six-feet-tall landscape painting, Magnificent Mountains with Gushy Cascades, created by renowned contemporary Chinese painter Li Keran. Sotheby’s unveiled the painting at the media preview and disclosed the official estimate to be US$10m. To know more about the rarity and story behind this enormous painting, The Value had an interview with C.K.Cheung, Head of Chinese Paintings, Sotheby’s Asia.


Li Keran (1907-1989)’s Magnificent Mountains with Gushy Cascades. Ink and Colour on Paper. Hanging Scroll.

Auction house: Sotheby’s Hong Kong
Sale: Fine Chinese Paintings
Auction date: 2017/10/2
Created in: 1978
Size: 171 x 94cm
Estimate: US$10,000,000


Q: What’s so special about this painting?

C: The painting shows multiple layers of the mountains and the work is meticulous. When you look at every tiny part of the painting, you can see the details as well as the varied levels of colours used, though in a similar tone. It a sophisticated painting depicting a spectacular view of mountains, trees and rocks in the natural world.

C (Continue): Li also put a lot of hard work on the light and shadow, which is also one of the traits of his landscape paintings. He was good at using light and shadow to create the effect of dark and bright, ruggedness, as well as near and far.

Q: How does it differ from other Chinese traditional landscape paintings?

C: Chinese traditional landscape paintings seldom focus on the source of lighting. But Li had drawn many experimental paintings to figure out how to apply light and shadow on his works. For example, this painting shows a clear source of lighting and you can find varying dark and bright colours in the same mountain, depending on where the light comes in.

C (continue): For example, when the light comes through leaves of the tree, there is a contrast in colour between the leaves and the tree trunks. You can see the painter had paid attention to these tiny details. The painting creates a scenery of magnificent mountains with gushy cascades, that’s very breathtaking. The painting will be on display at the hall when it goes to auction in October and it will definitely look more impressive.

Q: Has this painting been exhibited in public before?

C: It made its debut in Japan, instead of China. In 1979, after the Chinese economic reform, Rongbaozhai (a Chinese stationery, calligraphy and painting shop with a history of over three centuries), as invited by Seibu department store to be a partner of an art exhibition. It was a huge event of China-Japan cultural exchange at that time and it was also the first foreign event for Rongbaozhai in over 300 years. When it was collecting artworks from over 30 famous artists, Li Keran handed this masterpiece that he created a year ago to Rongbaozhai.

Li Keran

C (continue): The exhibition and this painting attracted many art enthusiasts and collectors. This painting was then passed to a Hong Kong collector and was on exhibition at the Art Museum of Chinese University of Hong Kong in 1987. That was the second time this painting showed in the public eye so Hong Kong people were quite fortunate to have such opportunity. We are very honoured to have secured this painting for the coming auction. It offers a great chance for fans of Li Keran to appreciate this masterpiece.

There are other paintings with similar themes. A painting that also named Magnificent Mountains with Gushy Cascades (above image) was auctioned at Tokyo Chuo Auction in 2016 and another one Magnificent Mountains was auctioned at China Guardian in 2013. Experts from Sotheby’s believe the painting that they have secured is the prototype of other paintings with similar themes.

Q: What is the difference between this painting and other paintings of similar themes that he created later in his career?

C: We found that themes used in Li’s paintings are limited when you compare him with Zhang Daqian. Li used the same theme to create paintings after paintings and sought improvement in the process. From what we have learnt about Li, he was not a prodigious painter. He was a painter more by nurture than nature. He described himself as a diligent lifelong learner who adopted many tough and difficult methods to enhance his painting skills. Therefore, he repeatedly used some of the themes on paintings as he was pushing the limits of himself as well as to further perfect his works.

C (continue): Therefore, you won’t find any significant changes in the composition of his work. But you can see the slight changes as he was gradually improving his skills and gaining life experiences. Even though he painted dozens of paintings of a single theme, details in the first paintings and the last paintings are different.

Q: It is said that Li often revised his work. Is it true?

C: Li was a rigorous painter and he liked revising parts that he was dissatisfied with on some of his masterpieces. In the past, many people wondered why his works are full of patches and they did not know the modification was made by the painter himself. Li liked to reflect on his works and thought about how to further improve them. But of course, if the work was not good enough, he would not bother to make modifications. He would rather throw it away and start it all over again.

Q: Does this painting show any trace of him making modification on it?

A: Yes, a tiny part. This painting is basically an excellent work. But Li was a perfectionist and he strove for the best. He repainted a small part to refine this painting.

Li Keran’s artworks are highly sought after at auctions, especially in Mainland China. One of his red landscape paintings (above image) had an estimate of RMB 68m-88m and was sold for RMB 87.97m with buyer’s premium at an evening sale at China Guardian Beijing. Some people think the craze for his red landscape paintings is mostly attributed to the colour “red”. In contrast, the tone of colours in this painting is mostly dark. Does it affect the value of the painting?

Q: Compare with Li’s series of red landscape paintings, what’s so special about this painting?

C: Whether the painting is in red or black, the value that different colours carry is an additional value on top of the painting itself. Maybe a colour is given certain connotations at a particular time. But what we value most is still the artwork itself. Sometimes, artists need work in certain political environments. The meaning derived from the history is also an additional one. Market preference and trend are also factors affecting the value but I won’t comment on that.

The Value will introduce other highlights at the sale and to tell the story behind Fu Baoshi’s Trekking over Mountains in Moonlight. Please stay with us for the second part of the interview.