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Record sale of US$65 million Zao painting yields 2,735 per cent return

A ten-metre-long triptych by Zao Wou-Ki -- known by now as one of the most prominent Chinese painters of the last century -- fetched US$65 million at auction, Sotheby's Hong Kong said on September 30.

[HONG KONG]  An abstract oil painting by Chinese-French master Zao Wou-Ki changed hands for HK$510.4 million (S$89.5 million) at Sotheby's on Sunday, more than 28 times its previous purchase price and setting a new record for an Asian oil painting sold at auction.

Taiwanese businessman Chang Qiu Dun, whose company P&F Brother Industrial Corp. makes treadmills and power tools, paid US$2.3 million in May 2005 for ‘Juin-Octobre 1985,' a 10-meter (33 foot) triptych he had kept at a purpose-built space adjoining his factory in the industrial city of Taichung.

The new high watermark shows how Asian artists are closing the price gap with their Western counterparts, as well as the growing importance of the region in the global art scene as a source of both consignors and buyers.

"At US$65 million, Zao Wou-Ki joins the ranks of his postwar American contemporaries like de Kooning, Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman," Pascal de Sarthe, a Hong Kong-based dealer who has been selling Zao's works for 35 years, said after the sale.

Top-Quality Works

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Zao's piece helped Sotheby's achieve sales of HK$1.56 billion at its Modern and Contemporary auctions on Sept. 30, the highest-ever total realized for its evening auctions in Hong Kong. The pre-sale estimate was HK$1.16 billion.

The evening's success demonstrates the resilience of art as an asset class despite investor concerns about a China economic slowdown and global trade tensions.

"Observers are saying market uncertainty might affect things," said Kevin Ching, Sotheby's Asia chief executive officer. "But these strong results prove a carefully curated selection of top-quality works will find buyers."

Sotheby's declined to identify the Zao buyer, who placed the winning bid by phone through Sebastian Fahey, the auction house's managing director of business in Asia. The sale was over in just a few minutes, handing Chang a 2,735 per cent return on his investment versus a gain of about 150 per cent for the S&P 500 over the same period.

Hanging Scrolls

Zao, who died in Switzerland in 2013 aged 93, painted the work in 1985 at the behest of his close friend and fellow Chinese emigre, architect I.M. Pei. He spent most of the last 65 years of his life in France, drawing on both Chinese and European academic traditions and fusing them into his own distinctive abstract expressionist style.

The previous record for a single Asian work of art sold at auction was in 2010 in Beijing, when an ancient hand scroll sold at Poly International Auction Co. for US$64 million. Poly also sold 12 hanging scrolls by ink painter Qi Baishi for 931 million yuan (S$254.3 million) in 2017.

Another highlight of the evening's sale was a new auction record for Vietnamese artist Nguyen Gia Tri (1908-1993) whose 1939 lacquer-on-wood painting entitled "Les Villageois" sold for HK$6.1 million, more than four times its pre-sale high estimate of HK$1.5 million.

On Monday, Sotheby's sold an additional HK$254.84 million of modern and contemporary art in day sales. The five-day auction marathon ends Oct. 3, when a rare reticulated vase from the Qianlong period goes on the block.


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