Students claim credit for $11m painting

Updated: 2011-09-17 09:06

By Zhang Kun (China Daily)

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SHANGHAI - A group of former art students say that an oil painting sold at auction last year as an original Xu Beihong was in fact painted by one of them, not the late artist.

The piece - Nude, Ms Jiang Biwei, which depicts a solitary naked woman - went under the hammer last spring at Beijing Jiuge Auctions and attracted a winning bid of 72.8 million yuan ($11.4 million).

Details provided with the lot, which have been circulated online, included a photo of the painting with Xu Boyang, Xu Beihong's son, and an endorsement he signed that read: "This painting is an original work by my deceased father. It was completed in his early years and kept for my mother." The note was dated Sept 29, 2007.

However, according to an open letter on Thursday signed by 10 former students at the Central Academy of Fine Arts' oil painting department in 1983, the work was actually produced during one of their class exercises - 30 years after the master's death.

The painting was "a class exercise from one of us", read the letter, which was published by Southern Weekly. "We are not sure which of us painted this, but a few of us still have sketches from the same class."

At the time of the auction, it was believed the woman in the painting was Jiang Biwei, the artist's first wife, with whom he had two children, Xu Boyang and a younger daughter, before the couple divorced in 1945. She later moved to Taiwan, where she died in 1978.

Yet, the students insist in their letter that the model was a country girl from East China's Jiangsu province, who posed in front a class of 20 in May 1983.

"The exercise took three weeks, each painting session going on for a whole morning," read the letter. "It was an impressive experience in our two years of study (at the school). We remember it well.

"We were all trying to learn the classic realism style. So we painted this piece very close to the portrayed subject, and our works were extremely similar to each other."

China Daily was unable to contact Xu Boyang, an 84-year-old Hong Kong resident, before going to press on Friday.

Xu Beihong, president of the Central Academy of Fine Arts from 1949 until his death in 1953, was a master of oil and ink styles. He combined Chinese techniques with Western perspectives and methods of composition, largely defining the direction of modern Chinese art.

Artist and essayist Chen Danqing said on Thursday he was surprised the painting was considered to be a work by Xu Beihong.

"It is plainly a students' exercise," he was quoted by Southern Weekly as saying. "In Xu's (earlier) portrait of Jiang Biwei ... she looks slender and comely, a typical woman from a well-off household in the Yangtze Delta of the early 20th century; while the nude woman (in the disputed painting) looks plump and unsophisticated."

Beijing Jiuge Auctions declined to comment on the issue on Friday.