BEIJING—China Guardian Auction House, the second largest in mainland China, sold a 1946 triptych by Chinese modern painter Qi Baishi (1864-1957) for 425.5 RMB ($65 million), a record for a modern work of Chinese art. Titled Eagle Standing on Pine Tree with Four Character Couplets in Seal Script, it was painted in traditional ink-and-brush technique flanked by two lines of calligraphy. Though little known in the west, Qi Baishi, who was 84 at the time he made this work, is the top-selling artist in sales of traditional Chinese painting, which make up the vast majority of profits at mainland auction houses.
The record was set at Guardian’s opening sale of its five-day spring 2011 sales season on the evening of May 22. The total result of the sale, which had 32 lots, was 1.04 billion RMB ($159 million). Bidding for the Qi Baishi opened at 80 million RMB but rose over the course of a half hour, with many potential buyers in the audience and many on the phone. According to a Guardian representative, all its top clients, collectors from the mainland, were active in the sale.
The work had been consigned by Liu Yiqian, a Shanghai billionaire who ranks 196th on the Forbes 400 list. He is planning on opening a private museum in 2012.
“The grand triptych is one of the most impressive ink works ever created by Qi Baishi and reflects vast auspiciousness. We are very excited the price achieved has set a landmark and is a new era in the Chinese painting market,” said Wang Yannan, head of China Guardian. The firm, which has been holding its spring sales in the grand ballrooms of the Beijing International Convention Center, is planning on building its own headquarters, just a few blocks away from the north side of the Forbidden City.
All the top 100 auction prices for the artist have been realized at auctions in China, most in Beijing and Hong Kong. Leon Wender, director of China 2000 Fine Art, New York, said Qi Baishi is a member of a small group of artists who are considered the “favored sons” of Beijing, and that that is where auctions typically bring top price.
Wender says virtually no sales take place outside China. “If a painting by Qi Baishi comes in the door to sell, I’m taking it to Beijing,” he says. This, he says, marks a stark contrast to the early 1980s when the artist’s paintings could be bought in New York for about $175.