Chinese classic scroll painting sells for record $24 million

HONG KONG (Reuters Life!) - A rare, classical scroll by a Ming dynasty artist fetched $24.8 million at a Beijing sale, the highest price ever paid for a Chinese painting at auction, in a positive sign for the downturn-stricken Chinese art market.

The painting, “Eighteen Arhats” by 16th century Ming dynasty painter Wu Bin, was sold to Shanghai private collector Liu Yiqian for 169.1 million yuan including commissions, almost eight times its pre-sale estimate of 20 million yuan, said auctioneers Poly International.

The Chinese art market which was hit hard by the financial crisis, particularly Chinese contemporary art, has been showing signs of recovery, with exceptional objects and more traditional collecting categories commanding stratospheric prices again.

The scroll was one of three blockbuster works that exceeded or hovered near the 100 million yuan mark during the autumn sales season in Beijing by Poly International, in a strong year-end showing for the Chinese art market.

“The (classical) Chinese art market has now reached the 100 million yuan level, and given China’s economic strength I find this to be a natural development,” Li Da, the general manager of Poly International, told Reuters.

The result was over double the previous world record for a Chinese painting, “Red Cliff Handscroll,” a Ming dynasty masterpiece by Qiu Ying that was hammered off for $10.7 million in 2008 before the financial crisis hit. Before that, “Put Down Your Whip” by Xu Beihong had sold for a then-record $8.2 million.

“Eighteen Arhats,” a meticulous rendering of a journey by eighteen monks through a mountainous landscape, accompanied by mythical animal consorts, was once owned by the Qianlong emperor whose own calligraphy adorns the scroll.

“Only the Chinese can truly appreciate the spirit, the philosophy and historical importance of such classical Chinese paintings,” said Li.

“I feel classic Chinese art is still undervalued compared with the prices paid for Western Impressionist and contemporary paintings by artists like Picasso or Renoir,” she added.

Another classic work, a “letter leaf” of calligraphy by Song dynasty scholar Zeng Gong fetched 108.6 million yuan ($15.91 million), a new auction record for Chinese calligraphy.

Both the scroll and letter leaf had come from the collection of European collector Guy Ullens and his wife Myriam.

Another highlight was a “flowers and insects album leaf” by Chinese artist Qi Baishi that went for 95.2 million yuan, which the auction house said was a record for the artist.

Editing by Miral Fahmy