Sotheby’s puts record estimate on Zhang Daqian scroll for Hong Kong auction

Betting that top-quality art can beat the auction blues, Sotheby’s estimates late Chinese painter’s Peach Blossom Spring will sell next month for HK$50 million to HK$65 million

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 March, 2016, 6:58pm
UPDATED : Friday, 11 March, 2016, 9:53am

Sotheby’s is gambling that top-quality art will still find eager buyers in today’s tepid auction market. It has slapped an eye-watering estimate of HK$50 million to HK$65 million – a record – on Peach Blossom Spring, a hanging scroll up for sale in Hong Kong next month, that Chinese artist Zhang Daqian completed in 1982, the year before he died at the age of 85.

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The work is one of around 20 by the late Chinese master in Sotheby’s annual spring sales in Hong Kong in early April. Even the lower estimate for the work exceeds any the auction house has put on a Chinese painting; as for the upper estimate, works by Zhang have sold for much more than HK$65 million. In 2011, his Lotus and Mandarin Duck sold for HK$191 million, setting the auction record for the artist.

“In 2011, the estimate for Lotus and Mandarin Ducks was set at HK$20 million, so that shows there isn’t also a close relationship between estimates and final prices,” said Cheung Chiu-kwan, head of Sotheby’s Chinese paintings department.

The high estimate for Peach Blossom Spring reflects the fact it is considered a work as important as another work from Zhang’s late period, a splashed-ink-style scroll owned by Taipei’s National Palace Museum, he said.

Zhang’s works often feature in Sotheby’s Hong Kong auctions because because of his fame and because he was so prolific. The auction house held special sales of Zhang’s paintings in 2011 and 2013, with works chosen from the Mei Yun Tang collection. Lotus and Mandarin Ducks was among 25 works included in the 2011 sale, and all were snapped up within an hour, raising a total of HK$680 million.

Peach Blossom Spring, a scene inspired by the similarly titled poem by Tao Yuanming, is being sold by the Mactaggart Art Collection in Canada. Cheung said Sotheby’s had not provided any financial guarantee to the seller, a tactic auction houses employ to secure rare consignments. “My department has never provided guarantees,” he said. Under such an agreement, the seller would receive a certain amount even if the work fails to sell for the guaranteed price.

This year promises to be tough for auction houses in Hong Kong as China’s economic growth continues to slow. Bonhams has just laid off staff in its Hong Kong office, including Magnus Renfrew, deputy chairman of Asia, because of disappointing sales. Sotheby’s chief executive officer Tad Smith has also been cutting costs heavily under pressure from narrowing margins and demands from activist shareholders.