A politically charged masterpiece in Chinese contemporary art bought for HK$250,000 and hidden away for more than a decade is expected to fetch HK$30 million at a London auction on Friday.
Yue Minjun's Execution, a painting which adapts a 19th century Manet classic to echo the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, was sold by late Hong Kong dealer Manfred Schoeni to a young British investment banker in 1996.
The banker, then a fresh graduate in his mid-20s, used two-thirds of his annual salary to pay for the masterpiece and had to promise Schoeni, who feared its subject matter would cause trouble for the artist, not to show it in public for five years.
The owner, who now divides his time between London and Hong Kong, later gave away a half share of the masterpiece in return for a ring that he used to propose to his girlfriend.
He later split with his fiancee and never recovered the ring or the half share.
The 1995 painting is expected to fetch between GBP1.5 million (HK$23.7 million) and GBP2 million at a Sotheby's auction where it is billed as 'among the most important paintings of the Chinese avant-garde ever to appear at auction'.
With the current booming demand for Chinese contemporary art, there is speculation among art dealers that Execution - which belongs to a field of art known as cynical realism - could become the first modern Chinese work to fetch more than US$10 million at auction.
Speaking from London, the owner recalled how he saw Execution by chance when he dropped in at one of Manfred Schoeni's galleries.
He was already a customer and says when he saw the painting tucked away at the back of the gallery he was 'transfixed'.
'I said 'I have got to have that painting', but he told me 'I don't want you to have it',' said the owner, who asked not to be identified.
'We were friends by then, and I negotiated and we worked out a deal. My side of the deal was to keep it out of sight for five years, and it has turned out to be more than a decade. No single human being apart from me set eyes on it until a few months ago when Sotheby's and Christie's turned up to have a look at it.'
Now aged 36 and retired from banking, the owner described the masterpiece as being 'the story of modern China'.
Schoeni, stabbed to death in a burglary on a luxury villa in the Philippines in May 2004, had 'tilted the cultural axis of China' through his pioneering work in bringing contemporary art out of the mainland long before its current popularity, he said.
Coincidentally, the owner met Schoeni's widow and daughter at an art fair in London last week. Schoeni's gallery is now run by his 26-year-old daughter, Nicole.
Sotheby's specialist Alexander Branczik said the auction house was hugely excited about Friday's auction. It is the first piece of Chinese contemporary art to have its own separate dedicated single-painting catalogue from a major auction house.
Another of Yue's paintings, The Massacre at Chios, goes under the hammer in Sotheby's in Hong Kong today. The auction house estimates it will fetch up to HK$12 million, although some art experts believe it could go much higher.
Yue Minjun is a Beijing-based painter and sculptor referred to as a cynical realist
Another of his works, an oil on canvas called The Pope, set a record for modern Chinese art when it sold this year for GBP2.15m