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‘September 1987, Yang Fei Yun hua Peng Peng’, a portrait by Chinese artist Yang Fei Yun that sold for £1.7m at Woolley & Wallis in Salisbury. The sitter depicted was dubbed by the artist as the ‘Chinese Mona Lisa’ and she later became his wife. She travelled to Salisbury herself to watch the sale.

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The Northern Girl, signed and dated September 1987, Yang Fei Yun hua Peng Peng, came for sale from the Roddick Charitable Foundation. Part of a cutting-edge show of art from the People’s Republic at the Hefner Galleries in New York, it was bought c.1990 by Body Shop founder Dame Anita Roddick (1942-2007).

Yang Fei Yun is today recognised as the pioneer of a style combining the European classical tradition with Chinese symbolism. The Northern Girl is among a series of narrative portraits painted in the 1980s that depict his ‘Chinese Mona Lisa’ – a model from Yang’s native Inner Mongolia who became his muse and then his wife.

Artist was paid $650

According to Yang, he hadn’t want to sell The Northern Girl (he received just RMB2400, around $650) but it had been necessary to cover costs of exhibiting in the US. Peng Peng made the journey to Wiltshire to see it again.

The auctioneers issued a ‘refer to department’ estimate but were privately hoping for a price close to £500,000. At least four bidders were active above the £1m mark. With buyer’s premium, the winning bidder in the room will pay just under £2m.

The November 13 sale also included six oils and a watercolour by Chinese-American painter Chen Yan Ning (b.1945), acquired by Roddick after a Hefner exhibition in 1989. The first lot of the day, The Sandalwood Fan IV, bought in October 1990 for £10,500, sold at £230,000 after a full 15 minutes of bidding.

The seven-figure barrier has now been passed 10 times at the Salisbury salerooms since the £2.6m sale of a Yuan double gourd vase in July 2005. A total of 14 lots have sold for £1m or more in the UK regions.

Read more on London and regional Asian art auction results in a future issue.