The Advent of A New Era in Asian Art Market: Sanyu’s Nudes

Sanyu’s final nude masterpiece, Nu, was sold at Sotheby’s Modern Art Evening Sale for HK$197m (US$25.11m) earlier in October, setting a new record for the Chinese émigré artist. Barely a month has passed since then and Sotheby’s has already made an announcement to build on the momentum with another of Sanyu’s iconic paintings, Four Nudes (green background), which is set to lead in their Modern Art Sale in Spring 2020. Zao Wou-ki, Asia’s best-selling artist in recent years, might finally be stepping aside for Sanyu to lead the way.

Four Nudes (green background) is headlining Sotheby's Hong Kong Spring Auction 2020


Photograph of Sanyu taken circa 1950


According to SANYU Catalogue Raisonné: Oil Paintings, only six of them feature nudes in groups of three or more and these were all painted in the 1950s - Four Nudes (green background) might very well be the most captivating and vivid of them all. The painting depicts four female nude figures lounging on a green pasture, presumably sunbathing. Sanyu successfully transformed the mundanity of the human body into natural landscapes by infusing the spirit of Asian landscape painting into the Western nude genre.

Sanyu’s earlier works leaned towards featuring a singular figure rather than in groups. After achieving a breakthrough in composition, style and use of perspective in the latter years of his career, Sanyu evolved and created masterpieces depicting multiple figures. Sanyu also had a habit of applying different colours and brushstrokes using similar compositions, as can be seen from his other works Three Nudes and Four Nudes (white background) which were drawn in the same period as Four Nudes (green background). Experts surmised that Three Nudes and Four Nudes (white background) might even be the drafts of Four Nudes (green background).

Four Nudes Sleeping on a Gold Tapestry | National Museum of History in Taipei


Four Nudes (white background) – auctioned at Ravenel Auction Taipei in 2001

As mentioned earlier in this article, only six of Sanyu’s paintings feature nudes in groups of three or more. The whereabouts of four such paintings are known so far:

1. Four Nudes Sleeping on a Gold Tapestry, collection of the National Museum of History, Taipei, Taiwan

2. Four Nudes (white background) – sold for NT$14.37m (US$471,000) at Ravenel Auction Taipei in 2001, private collection of a Taiwanese art collector

3. Five Nudes – sold for HK$128m (US$16.5m) at Ravenel Auction Hong Kong in 2011; returning to Christie’s Hong Kong Autumn Auction this month with an estimate of HK$250m (US$33m)

4. Four Nudes (green background) – sold for HK$16.36m (US$2.09m) at an auction in Hong Kong back in 2005

Five Nudes is returning to Christie’s Hong Kong Autumn Auction this month

There are some interesting commonalities between Five Nudes and Four Nudes (green background). Firstly, both paintings share the same provenance - making their first appearance at Hôtel Drouot in Paris back in 1966, and both were previously owned by legendary collectors Bideau and Jean-Claude Riedel. Secondly, both paintings were reportedly put on auction by Taiwanese art collector Pierre Chen Tai-ming’s YAGEO Foundation back in 2005 and 2011 respectively, achieving an important milestone for the Asian art market.

It should not be taken for granted that Asian oil painting collecting is now the mainstream of the Hong Kong art market today. Back in 2005 when Four Nudes (green background) was auctioned, Asian oil painting collecting was still a new trend and auction houses played a big part in driving its growth. In the end it was hammered down at HK$16.36m (US$2.09m) which far exceeded its HK$6m-8m estimate, smashing prevalent market’s expectations back then.

Close-up of Four Nudes (green background)

Vinci Chang, Sotheby’s Head of Modern Asian Art

Six years since Four Nudes (green background) was sold, Ravenel then concluded the sale of Five Nudes for HK$128m (US$16.5m) which marked the highest price ever paid for an oil painting by a Chinese artist at auction (as of 2011). That is until October this year when Nu, Sanyu’s final masterpiece, obliterated his own record with HK$197m (US$25.11m) at Sotheby’s Mordern Art Evening Sale.

We observe a shift of market trend from Zao Wou-ki to Sanyu in the current Asian art market climate. Without a doubt Four Nudes (green background) will fetch a handsome price in the upcoming Sotheby’s Modern Art Sale in Spring 2020.

Vinci Chang, Sotheby’s Head of Modern Asian Art commented: “This autumn, we set a new benchmark for Sanyu when Nu was sold for a record HK$198 million (US$25.2 million). With interest in the artist at an all-time high, Sanyu’s paintings of female nudes, particularly the larger-scale works, have sparked lively conversations amongst collectors and art lovers worldwide, both for their aesthetic value and their place in modern art history. By the time he created Quatre Nus in the post-war 1950s, life and art for Sanyu were reaching new expressive peaks, his awe of the female nude, in all its vitality, providing the impetus for an extraordinary body of work. Quatre Nus is arguably the most alluring of these masterpieces, and undoubtedly of huge appeal to today’s collectors.”

Sanyu (1901-1966). Quatre Nus |Oil on Masonite|Sotheby's Spring Sale in Hong Kong in 2020

Created in: 1950s
Size: 100 x 122cm

  • Hôtel Drouot, Paris, 1966
  • Collection of Yves Bideau (Jean François Bideau)
  • Collection of Jean-Claude Riedel
  • Sotheby’s, Taipei, October 1994, Lot 68
  • Christie’s, Hong Kong, 27 November 2005, Lot 185

Estimate: TBA