At Lyon & Turnbull’s (25/20% buyer’s premium) dedicated auction in London on May 16, three Chinese paintings by well-known 20th century artists drew eye-catching prices, totalling over £250,000.
Although Chinese art is a vast field, pictures of sufficient quality to pique the interest of mainland China are rarely found in the UK, or indeed the West in general.
L&T’s Asian art specialist, Ling Zhu, said much of this trend is down to the collecting tastes of previous generations. “The turnover of Chinese paintings is higher than any other category in Asian art but overseas there are not so many. The UK is not really known for having a large stock, and traditionally the British have collected more porcelain.”
Therefore, when quality Chinese paintings do turn up coupled with a longstanding Western provenance, competition is fierce.
“The feedback I’m getting from our clients is that provenance is absolutely key,” added Zhu.
Asian buyers are also increasingly focused on solid attributions.
“More than ever, buyers are looking for authenticated paintings – that is to say they want a 100% guarantee that the paintings are by the artist.
“There used to be a time when paintings catalogued as ‘attributed to’ or ‘style of’ would sell quite well, but not any more,” said Zhu.
A leading name is Jiang Zhaohe (1904-86), often considered to be the father of modern Chinese figure painting.
The first of the trio of pictures to do well at L&T was Zhaohe’s Elderly Man, 1953, a 4ft 3in x 2ft 2in (1.3m x 67cm) hanging scroll in ink and colour on paper. Purchased in Prague in the early 1970s, it had remained in the same private London collection ever since. It drew bids from five phone lines before it was knocked down at £125,000 to a Chinese buyer based in Europe, over double its top estimate.
“The UK is not known for having a large stock of Chinese paintings
Zhaohe carried out his paintings in the highly unforgiving medium of fine washes of ink on Chinese xuan paper and is famed for his sympathetic portraits of the oppressed, poor and elderly. His masterpiece Refugees, painted in 1943, portraying more than 100 men, women and children displaced by the Sino-Japanese war, upset the Japanese occupiers so much that it was confiscated several times.
From a separate source, L&T included another Zhaohe picture – a 19½in x 16in (50 x 40cm) ink on paper portrait dating from the same period as Elderly Man and depicting his Russian friend and fellow artist, Ivan Titkov (1905-93). However, its more niche subject matter (the portrayal of a Westerner rather than Chinese sitter) seemed to dampen interest from Asian bidders and it failed to sell against an estimate of £30,000-50,000.
Elsewhere, strong prices emerged for a pair of small 20th century traditional Chinese landscapes from the contents of a town house in Glasgow. The auction house had traced the pair to the former mid- 20th century collection of Shanghai manager HH Lennox, who worked for the major Hong Kong trading house, Jardine, Matheson & Co.
Although bigger, more complex scenes drive the top end of this market, these relatively small and uncomplicated depictions had a desirable provenance. “If the same paintings turned up at a Chinese auction house they wouldn’t achieve such high prices – the UK provenance added the value,” said Zhu.
Knocked down at a multi-estimate £42,000 to a trade buyer was a 2ft 11in x 18in (89 x 46cm) mountainous landscape in paper, ink and colour by the prolific Pu Ru (1896-1963), the self-styled ‘Hermit of the Western Mountain’, known for the tranquility and poeticism of his landscapes.
The other work, a 2ft 11in x 18in (89 x 46cm) depiction of a scholar viewing a waterfall, dated to 1945 and by the equally prolific Huang Junbi (1899-1991), was knocked down to a European-based Chinese collector at £24,000, eight times the upper guide.