Three blockbuster works of Chinese painting and calligraphy set new records at Beijing's two major autumn auctions, heralding the arrival of the 100-million-yuan ($15 million) era in the classical Chinese art market. This stands in sharp contrast to the domestic contemporary art scene, which is only now showing slow signs of recovery from the world financial crisis.
A rare hand scroll titled Eighteen Arhats by Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) painter Wu Bin attracted much attention at Poly International's auctions, fetching 169.1 million yuan ($24.8 million), reportedly the highest ever paid for a Chinese painting at auctions worldwide.
This meticulous depiction of Buddhist monks on a journey, set against the backdrop of a mountainous landscape, was once a treasure of Qing emperor Qianlong (1711-99), who adorned the piece with his own calligraphy that vividly describes each arhat.
Flowers and Insects Album Leaf by Chinese painting master Qi Baishi sets a record price for the artist of 95.2 million yuan at Poly autumn auction.
Most paintings of Wu Bin, the 16th century artist, are housed in museums at home and abroad, making his works rarely seen and highly sought-after, at auctions, according to Poly International. In 1992, Eighteen Arhats was sold for $620,000 in New York City. It went under the hammer on Sunday night to Shanghai collector Liu Yiqian, for a price that was more than eight times the estimated 20 million yuan.
The previous record for a classical Chinese painting was set by Settling Down the Western Regions and Presenting Prisoners, by Qing court painter Xu Yang, which fetched 134 million yuan just a month ago at a Beijing auction.
Another record-breaking item was the Letter Leaf calligraphy by Zeng Gong (1019-83), one of the eight great scholars of letters of the Tang (AD618-907) and Song (960-1279) dynasties. It went for 108.6 million yuan, an unprecedented price for Chinese calligraphy in a domestic auction.
Both the hand scroll and the calligraphic leaf came from the collection of Belgian art connoisseurs, Guy and Myriam Ullens. Another 14 works of Chinese painting and calligraphy from their collection went under the hammer at the Poly autumn auction. It is notable that the couple had also consigned 15 Chinese art pieces (besides three oil paintings) to Poly's 2009 spring auctions. These fetched a total of 106 million yuan, and included Song Emperor Huizong's Rare Birds Painted from Life that, again, went to Liu for 61.7 million yuan.
China Guardian was the other auctioneer to break the 100 million yuan mark with Writings by Prominent Personage in the Song Dynasty on Attendant Xu's Seal Character that features calligraphy by seven renowned scholars, such as Zhu Xi and Zhang Jingxiu.
"The many deals of high quality classical Chinese paintings and calligraphy at high prices suggest a noticeable leap to a higher level by domestic collectors," says Wang Yannan, president of China Guardian Auctions.
Li Da, general manager of Poly International, says she believes classical Chinese art is still undervalued, when compared with prices paid for Western impressionists and contemporary paintings by artists such as Picasso or Renoir.
As for modern Chinese painting, maestro Qi Baishi was the highlight this season with his Flowers and Insects Album Leaf going for 95.2 million yuan at Poly autumn auction, reportedly a record for the artist.
Wu Guanzhong sold two of his most expensive paintings this year. The Tanzanian went for 30.8 million yuan at Poly, and A Magnificent Scene of the North fetched 30.24 million yuan at Guardian.
Also deserving of mention is a refined Qing-era vase that fetched 67.76 million yuan, breaking the domestic record for Chinese ceramics of Yongzheng's reign. Meanwhile, a Ming guqin (plucked seven-string Chinese musical instrument) created a record for its kind with a price of 21.84 million yuan at Guardian auctions.