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Xu painting sets US$9.2m record at Sotheby's auction

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A potential buyer admires one of the most important Chinese modern oil paintings, Put Down Your Whip, by Xu Beihong, last Wednesday during a spring sales preview by auction house Sotheby's in Hong Kong. The 1939 painting was sold for a record HK$72 million (US$9.2 million) on Saturday.

PHOTO: AFP

Xu Beihong's (徐悲鴻) 1939 painting Put Down Your Whip fetched HK$72 million (US$9.2 million) at a Sotheby's sale in Hong Kong, breaking the Chinese artist's own auction record for an Asian picture.

The oil painting of an anti-Japanese street-play with the same name topped the HK$54 million paid for Xu's 1924 work Slave and Lion at a Christie's International sale last November. The picture is the highlight of 1,200 items Sotheby's is offering at its four-day auction that ends tomorrow. Almost 500 people were in the auction room for the Xu sale on Saturday.

"This is a very reasonable price for such an important piece of work by a top Chinese artist," said Shanghai-based art dealer and collector Hua Yuzhou, who bid for the painting on behalf of another Chinese buyer.

Hua, 43, stopped when bidding reached HK$52 million.

Xu, born in Jiangsu Province in 1895, is best-known for his ink depictions of galloping horses. He painted Put Down Your Whip in Singapore, halfway through Japan's 14-year invasion and occupation of China. The canvas hasn't been seen in public since 1954, a year after Xu died in Beijing.

"This painting has great provenance and a theme that appeals to Chinese buyers," said Ken Yeh, Christie's Asia deputy chairman, in an interview at the Sotheby's auction. "Even so, that's a huge price to pay for the painting."

An anonymous buyer placed the winning bid by telephone. The final price includes commission, which is 20 percent for the first HK$4 million, and 12 percent thereafter for the buyer, said Matthew Weigman, a London-based Sotheby's spokesman.

He wouldn't say what the seller's commission was.

Compared with previous Hong Kong auctions, Saturday's bids were concentrated on works by established artists like Xu, Zao Wou-ki (趙無極) and Zhang Xiaogang (張曉剛) as a stock market rout last month quelled appetite for paintings by lesser-known names, deemed riskier bets.

"Bidding is the calmest we have seen in a while," said Beijing-based art dealer Tian Kai, 33.

Prices of paintings by Chinese contemporary artists like Zhang and Yue Minjun (岳敏君) have more than tripled in five years as European and US buyers compete with Asian investors for pieces that best interpret modern China.

At Sotheby's New York auction on March 21, Zhang's 1994 oil Bloodline: Three Comrades fetched US$2.11 million.

Five of the session's top 10 lots were Zhang paintings.

Zhang outsold top contemporary artists including Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst at auctions last year, ranking 38th by sales on a list of 500 artists, data provider Artprice.com said.

At Saturday's auction, Zhang's 1993 Tiananmen No. 1, the first of the artist's several paintings on the Beijing landmark, sold for HK$15.4 million, including commission, double the auction house's pre-sale estimate.

Christie's International sold a larger and later Zhang's work on Tiananmen for an artist record of HK$18 million, including commission, last November.

Three of six Zhang pictures offered at this auction made Sotheby's list of top 10 lots on Saturday.

Another highlight of the Chinese contemporary art sale was Liu Ye's (劉野) 1995 Sinking Ship, a surreal depiction of two Chinese cherubim perched on a rock and leafing through a book while a ship sinks in the background, which sold for an artist record of HK$7 million, including commission, more than twice the pre-sale estimate.

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