HK$130m Wu Guanzhong’s Lotus Painting Headlines Sotheby’s Modern Art Evening Sale in Hong Kong

Sotheby’s Hong Kong spring auction was kicked off by an exceptional Modern Art Evening Sale that totalled HK$794m (US$101m), selling 36 of all 39 lots offered. Unsurprisingly, abstract master Zao Wou-ki continued to dominate the sale by contributing more than half of the sale total. Nonetheless, the most expensive artwork of the sale was a masterpiece created by Wu Guanzhong during the Cultural Revolution. Carrying a pre-sale estimate of HK$15m-25m, Wu’s Lotus Flowers (I) was sold for HK$130m (US$16.6m) and became the first work of art crossing the HK$100m benchmark this spring season.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Wu Guanzhong’s birthday. The auction house especially chose Wu’s Lotus Flowers (I) as the cover lot of the sale. Renowned for his landscapes which fused Western and Oriental artistic traditions, Wu Guanzhong is one of the most important Chinese painters of the 20th century.

Due to the paucity of materials, during the Cultural Revolution Wu Guanzhong painted mostly on wood boards refashioned from small blackboards and reserved canvas for his finest works. He produced only about 30 paintings on canvas during the difficult times. Among these, the only ones exceeding one meter were almost all commissioned by museums or the national government.

Lotus Flowers (I), measuring 120.5 cm by 90.5 cm, is one of the very few large-scale oil paintings that Wu painted for himself. This suggests the passion and inspiration that motivated the work, as well as its significance as a milestone in Wu’s life and artistic career.

Esther Seet, Managing Director, Singapore

The bidding opened at HK$13m and the price went steadily up to HK$55m with telephone bidders and room bidders showing interest. As the price continued to go up to HK$72m, a new telephone bidder represented by Esther Seet, Managing Director, Singapore, entered the competition with a huge incremental jump that further pushed the price up to HK$80m.

Vinci Chang, Head of Modern Asian Art Department

Jesica Lee, Director Asia, Private Client Group

Other bidders included two telephone bidders, respectively represented by Vinci Chang, Head of Modern Asian Art Department, and Jesica Lee, Director Asia, Private Client Group. The former one tried to scare others off by offering the critical price point at HK$100m. But the bidding didn’t stop here. After several following bids, the auctioneer put the hammer down at HK$113m and sold the painting for HK$130m to Vinci Chang’s client.

Lotus Flowers (I) was the first work of art passing the HK$100m benchmark this spring, as well as the fourth painting by the artist that achieved prices above HK$100m.

Zao Wou-Ki's Untitled

Other top lots of the sale, as expected, were all works by abstract master Zao Wou-ki, whose works have been blue-chip blockbusters in almost every modern art auction in recent years. The group was led by Zao’s Untitled from the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.

Measuring 118.1 cm x 166.4 cm, Untitled was created by Zao Wou-Ki in 1958 during his ‘Oracle Bone’ period. The modest use of colours resembles the thousand-year-old bronzeware that withstands the test of time.

Vinci Chang, Head of Modern Asian Art Department

Estimated at HK$60m-80m, the painting was hammered down at HK$100m and sold for HK$115m (US$14.7m) after premium. The winner was Vinci Chang’s client.

The then President Roosevelt (second from the left) and Samuel I. Rosenman (third one from the right)

Samuel I. Rosenman donated Untitled to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 1964

The painting was initially presented by the Kootz Gallery (1945-1966), founded by New York art dealer Samuel M. Kootz. Then it was acquired by Samuel I. Rosenman (1896-1973), the first White House Counsel. He was a senior advisor and speechwriter to presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. He donated Untitled to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in 1964. The painting has been kept in the collection of the museum for more than six decades after its creation.


Zao Wou-Ki

The third top lot fell to Zao Wou-Ki’s 15.02.65, created from the artist’s Oracle-Bone Period (1954-1972). It carried an estimate of HK$70m-100m. 15.02.65 manifests the extraordinarily skilful use of colour and brushstrokes to transition between areas of light and dark, undeniably showcasing the artist’s bias and artistic resolve towards creating works contrasting in colour and composition.

The bidding started at HK$50m and later evolved into a bidding battle between a gentleman in the room and Patti Wong, Chairman of Sotheby’s Asia. The painting was hammered down at HK$88m and sold for HK$102m (US$13m) to the gentleman in the room, who made a number of purchases at the sale tonight.

Patti Wong, Chairman of Sotheby’s Asia

The winner was a gentleman in the room

Other notable lots of the sale include La Lune Est Voilée by Lalan, Zao Wou-Ki's first wife. Estimated at HK$1.5m-3m, the painting was sold for HK$6.77m (US$863,067), an auction record for the artist. There will be a solo exhibition dedicated to the artist at Sotheby's Gallery in Hong Kong this May. Please stay tuned for more details.

Top five lots

Wu Guanzhong. Lotus Flowers (I)

Lot no.: 1008
Created in: 1974
Size: 120.5 x 90.5cm
Important Private Asian Collection
Estimate: HK$15,000,000 - 25,000,000
Hammer price: HK$113,000,000
Price realised: HK$130,773,000 (US$16,659,172)

Zao Wou-Ki. Untitled

Lot no.: 1026
Created in: 1958
Size: 114.3 x 162.6cm

  • Kootz Gallery, New York
  • Collection of Judge and Mrs. Samuel I. Rosenman
  • Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (Gift of Judge and Mrs. Samuel I. Rosenman in 1964)

Estimate: HK$60,000,000 - 80,000,000
Hammer price: HK$100,000,000
Price realised: HK$115,966,000 (US$14,772,909)

Zao Wou-Ki. 15.02.65

Lot no.: 1029
Created in: 1965
Size: 97 x 195cm

  • Kootz Gallery, New York
  • Private Collection
  • Sotheby's, London, 18 October 1990, Lot 57
  • Important Private Asian Collection

Estimate: HK$70,000,000 - 100,000,000
Hammer price: HK$88,000,000
Price realised: HK$102,298,000 (US$13,031,742)

Zao Wou-Ki. 19.06.61

Lot no.: 1030
Created in: 1961
Size: 113.6 x 161.9cm

  • Laing Galleries, Toronto
  • Acquired directly from the above by the present private American collector in April 1969

Estimate: HK$60,000,000 - 80,000,000
Hammer price: HK$68,000,000
Price realised: HK$79,518,000 (US$10,129,798)

Zao Wou-Ki. 10.01.86

Lot no.: 1031
Created in: 1986
Size: 195 x 130cm

  • Galerie Jan Krugier, Geneva
  • Acquired directly from the above by the present important private Asian collector

Estimate: HK$25,000,000 - 35,000,000
Hammer price: HK$55,000,000
Price realised: HK$64,711,000 (US$8,243,534)

Auction summary
Auction house: Sotheby’s Hong Kong
Sale: Modern Art Evening Sale
Sale date: 31 March 2019
Lots offered: 39
Sold: 36
Unsold: 3
Sold by lots: 92%
Sale total: HK$794,057,000