Auction fever finally hit the Christie's Hong Kong salesroom last week with the sale of Chinese fine Modern paintings — a sector of the art market that Chinese collectors love to love. This genre of works made during the modern period but in a traditional style attracts a huge and passionately engaged audience in China, a fact which might be curious to a Western art audience. As with the sale at Sotheby's Hong Kong in October, the sector proved a winner for Christie's, with 96 percent of the lots selling for a total haul of HK$568.5 million ($73.2 million).
The sale stretched over an epic seven and a half hours and tired out three auctioneers, with almost every lot furiously contested. Driving the action were collectors from the mainland, a fact noted at the end of the marathon sale by Ben Kong, the international director of Chinese paintings at Christie's Hong Kong. In 2010, Chinese collectors have really begun to flex their muscles in the salesrooms of international auction houses, and it was no surprise to learn that the sale's result was up 92 percent from the equivalent auction last year.
Leading the evening's market event was a work by Fu Baoshi (1904-1965), "The Song of the Pipa Player" (1945), which sold for a total of HK$70.1 million ($9 million), well above its high estimate of HK$40 million ($5.2 million), setting a new artist's record. The work came to the block from one of the toniest collections possible, that of H.H. K'ung (1881-1967), who was a prominent financier and Chinese government minister prior to the Communist takeover of China in 1949. Through his marriage to Soong Ailing, he became brother-in-law to both Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek. Bidding on the work was intense, proceeding in HK$3 million ($400,000) and HK$2 million ($300,000) jumps until it reached HK$45 million ($5.8 million), at which point the bidding slowed to HK$1 million ($100,000) increments.
There were a number of competing bidders both in the room and on the phones; a burst of applause exploded in the room when the hammer finally fell. The bidder to win the Fu Baoshi piece was a private collector from mainland China, about whom no further details were available. The second most successful lot was "Temple at the Mountain Peak" by Zhang Daqian (1899-1983), which sold for a total of HK$61.1 million ($7.9 million), ten times its high estimate of HK$6 million ($800,000). The work is a beautiful example of Zhang's impressionistic pomo (splashed ink) style. Zhang was a particular favorite at this sale, with four of his works making the list of the top ten lots sold, each going for multiples of their high estimate.The auction also confirmed that the blue-chip Chinese Modern masters have been canonized: Fu Baoshi, Qi Baishi, Xu Beihong, and Zhang Daqian.