Colourful tale of love, fortune and loss behind iconic art sale

PUBLISHED : Friday, 12 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 12 October, 2007, 12:00am

It may set a new record price for a work of Chinese contemporary art when it goes under the hammer in London later today. Whatever unfolds in the auction room, however, Yue Minjun's Execution has already left an indelible mark on the lives of four people for whom the past decade has been coloured by the haunting work.

At the centre of the story behind the painting is Trevor Simon, now 36, who was a young investment banker in Hong Kong when he paid two-thirds of his annual salary in 1996 to buy Yue's masterpiece for HK$250,000, and less than a year later traded a half-share of it in return for an engagement ring.

Then there is the woman who walked away from her relationship with Mr Simon months after his proposal but kept the ring. There is also the Hong Kong diamond dealer whose share of the work of cynical realism inspired by the bloody Tiananmen Square crackdown may leave him several million US dollars richer by this evening.

Finally, there is the artist himself who, since painting Execution in 1995, has been elevated from dangerous subversive to officially endorsed celebrity and one of China's most celebrated contemporary artists. Yue's reputation is expected to be further enhanced by what happens at Sotheby's.

The fortunes of the four became intertwined when Mr Simon bought the painting from Hong Kong dealer Manfred Schoeni, who was murdered eight years later in a botched robbery in the Philippines. Schoeni sold the painting on the condition that it remain hidden from public view for five years because of its political sensitivity.

Mr Simon decided to propose to his American girlfriend, but having borrowed heavily to purchase Execution, he had nothing to fund his grand gesture except the painting itself.

'I'd only bought it a few months earlier and that's why I was so cavalier,' he said. 'I thought, 'What the hell. It's only a painting'. I knew its symbolic significance but I had no idea of its value. No one knew.'

With a half-share of the painting given away for a ring worth at that time HK$250,000, and the work itself shipped and locked away in a London warehouse where it would remain for the next decade, events in Hong Kong moved quickly, beginning with the breakdown of Mr Simon's relationship.

'We spent time planning our future together. I hadn't told my family about the engagement because it was all going to be a surprise,' he said. 'Then one day she told me 'I don't love you any more. It's not working out. I don't want to go to England with you'.'

Mr Simon, who blamed his own behaviour for the failure of the engagement, decided it was 'emotionally fair' to allow his former fiancee to keep the ring and not to try to claim back his half-share in Execution. His career, meanwhile, enjoyed a sharply upward trajectory and, in 2000, an investment bank poached him to work as a senior London-based analyst on a salary of more than US$1 million a year.

Three years later, and working under intense pressure, Mr Simon walked out on his job, teetering on the verge of a breakdown. He sees parallels between his situation then and the painting that had gone on ahead of him to London.

'I was being executed myself,' he said. 'I was slaughtered by the immense and unnecessarily inhuman pressure.' Mr Simon recalled how he walked out of his office and into a park where he fell to his knees and wept, never to return to his investment banking job.

After that, he set out on a journey of self-discovery, living in India and Fiji and spending large sums on therapy from life coaches.

Now, as he prepares to sever his link with Execution, he is considering throwing himself back into the world of investment banking, possibly in Hong Kong. 'I've had three Ferraris' worth of therapy, but it has been worth every penny because I am really strong now,' he said. 'I am 100 times stronger. I feel I can take on the world now. I'm ready to go back into the trenches.'

There remain unresolved issues, of course, not least his relationship with his ex-girlfriend. Then there is the question of how to split the proceeds of the sale with the diamond dealer friend to whom he gave a half-share of Execution.

For Yue, today's auction represents another milestone in his extraordinary rehabilitation if, as some analysts expect, the painting becomes the first piece of Chinese contemporary art to break through the US$10 million barrier.

Only five days ago, another of his Tiananmen-inspired works, the Massacre at Chios, sold after six minutes of intense bidding between seven rival bidders for HK$31.7 million at a Sotheby's auction in Hong Kong - nearly four times its presale low estimate.

If Execution, with a presale low estimate of more than HK$23 million, performs as well, it could fetch nearly HK$100 million.

Despite the politically charged nature of his work, which includes overt references to the 1989 crackdown, Yue - now 44 - received a glowing profile by the official Xinhua news agency earlier this year, praising his work as an 'icon of the times' and, without any reference to the events that inspired some of his paintings, said: 'He seems to be enjoying a practical joke on the world and explaining the turbulent world with humour.'