Song dynasty painting fails to break Chinese record as Asian art market cools

  • Wood and Rock, painted by Su Shi in the 11th century, sold for US$59.2 million but fell short of the existing record, held by its contemporary, Huang Tingjian’s Dizhuming
  • Political and economic uncertainty, and elections in Taiwan, contributed to a stalled market
PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 November, 2018, 9:38pm
UPDATED : Monday, 26 November, 2018, 11:21pm

Pre-sale hype comparing Chinese artist Su Shi to Leonardo da Vinci failed to see a rare painting by the Song-dynasty polymath break the existing record for Chinese paintings and calligraphy.

On Monday, Christie’s sold the 1,000-year-old Wood and Rock for HK$463.6 million (US$59.2 million), around HK$30 million short of the record set in 2010 by Huang Tingjian’s Dizhuming, which also dates from the same era.

The auction house had aggressively marketed the painting as “possibly the world’s rarest and most valuable Chinese painting”, evoking a certain beer commercial in its hyperbole. But the Asian art market appears to have cooled substantially in recent weeks because of economic and political uncertainties. Bidding began at HK$300 million and quickly stalled at a phone bid of HK$380 million before Rebecca Wei, Christie’s Asia president, bumped it up to HK$390 million with another offer made over the phone. Just one more competing bid was made before her anonymous buyer put the price up to the final hammer price HK$410 million less than three minutes after the sale started. The final price includes the HK$53.6 million charged by the auction house in commissions.

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The auction house also saw lacklustre demand during its Asian 20th century and contemporary art evening sale on Saturday. The final tally for the sale was HK$425.3 million, including fees – a far cry from the HK$1.56 billion that was recorded at Sotheby’s evening sale in Hong Kong at the end of September. Some of the gap was down to the lack of aggressive bids for the oil paintings of Zao Wou-Ki, the prolific French-Chinese modern artist whose works have come to dominate the top tier of the Asian art market in recent years. Heightened concerns over a US-China trade war and the recent sell-off in the stock and property markets lent a more cautious air to the Hong Kong saleroom this month. The timing of Christie’s evening sale also coincided with elections in Taiwan, where a many Zao collectors live.

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In private, collectors and dealers have expressed scepticism over the authentication of a painting as old as a thousand years, especially one that had never been seen in public before or had belonged to a thoroughly documented imperial collection. But Christie’s maintains that while there are few examples of Su’s paintings for comparison, the colophons – or inscriptions – by Su’s contemporary Mi Fu cast aside any doubt. The painting is a faded monochrome of a gnarled tree and a strangely shaped rock, and it is a relatively diminutive 50cm wide. But it is mounted on a much longer scroll, on which Mi and three other calligraphers had written their thoughts about the painting.

It was sold to Japan in the 1930s and the current seller is believed to be Japanese.

Huang’s painting is not the most expensive lot of Chinese painting and calligraphy to be auctioned. That record is held by Qi Baishi’s Twelve Landscape Screens (1925), sold in Beijing last year for 930 million yuan.