11 Most Expensive Chinese Art Auction Results in the Last 10 Years

This article reveals the eleven most expensive pieces of Chinese art to be sold at auction over the past ten years. Read on to discover which masterpieces they were.

Jan 2, 2021By Mia Forbes
chinese art auction
Detail from an Imperial embroidered silk thangka, 1402-24; with Eagle Standing on Pine Tree by Qi Baishi, 1946; and Six Dragons by Chen Rong, 13th Century

 

The most important art sales at the major auction houses were long dominated by European masterpieces, from Old Master paintings to Pop Art. Over the previous decade, however, there has been a substantial shift across the globe, with art from other cultures appearing more and more regularly and selling for ever more impressive auction results. One of the largest surges in the market has been in Chinese art. The country’s first art-auction house, China Guardian, was founded in 1993, shortly followed by the state-owned China Poly Group in 1999, which has since become the world’s third-largest auction firm. In the past decade, this success has continued to flourish, with some of the most expensive pieces of Chinese art ever sold at auction.

 

What Is Chinese Art?

 

While Ai Weiwei may today be the most famous Chinese artist in western culture, the most valuable pieces of Chinese art generally date back to long before the twentieth century. From the rich history of Chinese porcelain to the traditional art of calligraphy, Chinese art spans many centuries and media.

 

The history of Chinese art has gone through many distinct phases, often influenced by the dynastic shifts of the Empire. For this reason, certain artistic styles are often referred to by the name of the dynasty in which they were made, such as a Ming vase or a Tang horse.

 

This article reveals the eleven most expensive auction results of Chinese masterpieces from the last ten years, exploring their history, context and design.

 

11. Zhao Mengfu, Letters, Ca. 1300

Realized Price: RMB 267,375,000 (USD 38.2m) 

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Zhao Mengfu, Letters, Ca. 1300
Zhao Mengfu, Letters, Ca. 1300

Zhao Mengfu’s letters are as beautiful in meaning as they are in style

 

Realized Price:     RMB 267,375,000  (USD 38.2m)

Venue & Date:     China Guardian Autumn Auctions 2019, Lot 1381

 


About The Artwork

 

Born in 1254, Zhao Mengfu was a scholar, painter and calligrapher of the Yuan Dynasty, although he himself was descended from the imperial family of the earlier Song Dynasty. His bold brushwork is considered to have caused a revolution in painting that eventually resulted in the modern Chinese landscape. In addition to his beautiful paintings, which often feature horses, Mengfu practiced calligraphy in a number of styles, exerting a significant influence on the methods used during the Ming and Qing dynasties.

 

The beauty of his writing is manifested in two letters he sent to his brothers around the turn of the 14th century. His words, which speak of both melancholy and fraternal affection, are as elegantly written as they are in meaning. The intimate and beautiful nature of these well-preserved documents ensured a high price when they came up for sale at China Guardian in 2019, with the winning bidder paying over $38m.

 

10. Pan Tianshou, View From The Peak, 1963

Realized Price: RMB 287,500,000 (USD 41m) 

 

Pan Tianshou, View From The Peak, 1963
Pan Tianshou, View From The Peak, 1963

Pan Tianshou’s View from the Peak epitomizes the painter’s skill with brush and ink

 

 

Realized Price:     RMB 287,500,000 (USD 41m)

Venue & Date:     China Guardian 2018 Autumn Auctions, Lot 355

 


About The Artwork

 

Twentieth-century painter and teacher, Pan Tianshou developed his artistic skills as a boy by copying the illustrations he found in his favorite books. During his school years, he practiced calligraphy, painting and stamp carving, making small creations for his friends and peers. After completing his formal education, he devoted his life entirely to art, producing many pieces himself and also teaching the subject at a succession of schools and universities. Unfortunately, the Cultural Revolution occurred at the peak of Pan’s career: years of public humiliation and renunciations were followed by accusations of spying, after which he faced increased persecution, eventually dying in the hospital in 1971.

 

Pan’s paintings pay homage to the Confucian, Buddhist and Daoist concepts by which earlier Chinese art had always been inspired, but also contain small innovations that make his work utterly unique. He took the traditional landscape and added smaller details rarely found in earlier paintings, and also chose to depict precipitous terrains rather than smooth-rolling vistas. Pan was even known to use his fingers to add texture to his work. All of these techniques are found in View from the Peak, a painting of a rugged mountain that sold in 2018 for the equivalent of $41m.

 

9. Imperial Embroidered Silk Thangka, 1402-24

Realized Price: HKD 348, 440,000 (USD 44m)

 

Imperial Embroidered Silk Thangka, 1402-24
Imperial Embroidered Silk Thangka, 1402-24

The ornate silk thangka is remarkably well-preserved for an object of this nature

 

Realized Price:     HKD 348,440,000 (USD 44m)

Venue & Date:     Christie’s, Hong Kong, 26 November 2014, Lot 3001

 


About The Artwork

 

Originating in Tibet, thangkas are paintings on a fabric such as cotton or silk, which typically show a Buddhist deity, scene or mandala. Because of their delicate nature, it is rare for a thangka to survive so long in such pristine condition, making this example one of the world’s greatest textile treasures.

 

The woven thangka is from the early Ming dynasty when such articles were sent to Tibetan monasteries and religious and secular leaders as diplomatic gifts. It shows the fierce deity Rakta Yamari, embracing his Vajravetali and standing victoriously atop the body of Yama, the Lord of Death. These figures are surrounded by a wealth of symbolic and aesthetic details, all delicately embroidered with the utmost skill. The beautiful thangka sold at Christie’s, Hong Kong in 2014 for the huge sum of $44m.

 

8. Chen Rong, Six Dragons, 13th Century

Realized Price: USD 48,967,500 

 

Chen Rong, Six Dragons, 13th Century
Chen Rong, Six Dragons, 13th Century

This 13th-century scroll exceeded all expectations at Christie’s, selling for well over 20 times its estimate

 

Realized Price:     USD 48,967,500

Estimate:                    USD 1,200,000 – USD 1,800,000

Venue & Date:     Christie’s, New York, 15 March 2017, Lot 507

Known Seller:     Fujita Museum

 


About The Artwork

 

Born in 1200, the Chinese painter and politician Chen Rong was little known to western collectors when his Six Dragons appeared at auction in 2017. This may account for the woefully inaccurate estimate, which predicted that the scroll would attract a bid of under $2m. By the time the hammer came down, however, the price had shot up to almost $50m.

 

Chen Rong was celebrated during the Song Dynasty for his depiction of dragons, which were the symbol of the emperor and also represented the powerful force of the Dao. The scroll on which his dragons appear also contains a poem and inscription by the artist, combining poetry, calligraphy, and painting in one. Six Dragons is one of few works left by the master dragon-painter, whose dynamic style went on to influence the depiction of these mythical creatures throughout the subsequent centuries.

 

7. Huang Binhong, Yellow Mountain, 1955

Realized Price: RMB 345,000,000 (USD 50.6m)

 

Huang Binhong, Yellow Mountain, 1955
Huang Binhong, Yellow Mountain, 1955

Yellow Mountain exemplifies Huang’s use of both ink and color

 

Realized Price:     RMB 345,000,000 (USD 50.6m)

Estimate:                    RMB 80,000,000-120,000,000 (USD 12m-18m)

Venue & Date:     China Guardian 2017 Spring Auctions, Lot 706

 


About The Artwork

 

Painter and art historian Huang Binhong had a long life and a prolific career. Although his art went through numerous phases, it culminated during his later years in Beijing, where he lived from 1937 to 1948. There Huang began to merge the two major Chinese painting systems – ink wash painting and color painting – into an innovative hybrid.

 

This new style was not well-received by his peers and contemporaries but has since come to be appreciated by modern collectors and critics. In fact, Huang’s work has become so popular that his Yellow Mountain sold at China Guardian in 2017 for over $50m. One of the most extraordinary things about the painting is that Huang, who was by this time suffering from an eye disease, painted the beautiful landscape from memory, recalling the earlier trips he had taken to the scenic mountains of the Anhui province.

 

6. Qi Baishi, Eagle Standing On Pine Tree, 1946

Realized Price: RMB 425,500,000 (USD 65.4m)

 

qi bashi eagle standing on pine tree
Qi Baishi, Eagle Standing On Pine Tree, 1946

Qi Baishi’s ‘Eagle Standing on Pine Tree’ is one of the most controversial Chinese paintings sold at auction

 

Realized Price:     RMB 425,500,000 (USD 65.4m)

Venue & Date:     China Guardian, Beijing, 2011

Known Buyer:           Hunan TV & Broadcast Intermediary Co

Known Seller:     Chinese billionaire investor and art collector, Liu Yiqian

 


About The Artwork

 

One of the most controversial auction results in Chinese art has been over Qi Baishi’s ‘Eagle Standing on Pine Tree.’ In 2011, the painting appeared at China Guardian and was snapped up for the incredible amount of $65.4m, making it one of the most expensive pieces of art ever sold at auction. A controversy was soon ignited, however, with the top bidder refusing to pay on the grounds that the painting was a fake. As well as causing chaos for China Guardian, on whose website no trace of the painting can now be found, the controversy highlighted the ongoing problem with forgery in the emergent Chinese market.

 

The issue is exacerbated in the case of Qi Baishi by the fact that he is thought to have produced between 8,000 and 15,000 individual works during his busy career. Despite working throughout the twentieth century, Qi’s work shows no western influence. His watercolors focus on the subjects of traditional Chinese art, namely nature, and presented them in a lyrical, whimsical fashion. In ‘Eagle Standing on Pine Tree,’ the artist manages to combine simple, bold brushstrokes with a sense of delicacy and texture to symbolize the qualities of heroism, strength and longevity.

 

5. Su Shi, Wood and Rock, 1037-1101

Realized Price: HKD 463,600,000 (USD 59.7m)

 

Su Shi, Wood and Rock, 1037-1101
Su Shi, Wood and Rock, 1037-1101

Su Shi’s elegant handscroll is one of the finest paintings of the Song Dynasty

 

Realized Price:     HKD 463,600,000 (USD 59.7m)

Venue & Date:     Christie’s, Hong Kong, 26 November 2018, Lot 8008

 


About The Artwork

 

One of the scholar officials charged with the administration of the Song Empire, Su Shi was a statesman and a diplomat as well as a great artist, a master of prose, an accomplished poet and a fine calligrapher. It is partly for the multi-faceted and highly influential nature of his career that his remaining artwork is so valuable, with his ‘Wood and Rock’ selling at Christie’s in 2018 for almost $60m.

 

An ink painting on a handscroll over five meters in length, it depicts a strangely shaped rock and tree, which together resemble a living creature. Su Shi’s painting is complemented by calligraphy by several other artists and calligraphers of the Song Dynasty, including the renowned Mi Fu. Their words reflect on the meaning of the image, speaking of the passing of time, the power of nature and force of Tao.

 

4. Huang Tingjian, Di Zhu Ming, 1045-1105


Realized Price: RMB 436,800,000 (USD 62.8 million)

 

Huang Tingjian, Di Zhu Ming, 1045-1105
Huang Tingjian, Di Zhu Ming, 1045-1105

Huang’s huge scroll set records because of the beauty of his calligraphy, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

 

Realized Price:     RMB 436,800,000 (USD 62.8 million)

Venue & Date:     Poly Auction, Beijing, 03 June 2010

 


About The Artwork

 

Setting the record for auction results at the time for the most expensive piece of Chinese art, Huang Tingjian’s ‘Di Zhu Ming’ was sold at Poly Auction in 2010 for the staggering sum of $62.8m. Huang joins Su Shi as one of the four masters of calligraphy during the Song Dynasty, and the piece in question is his longest regular handscroll in existence today. It is thought to represent an important transition in the style of his calligraphy.

 

The masterpiece features Huang’s calligraphic rendering of an epigraph originally written by the famous Tang Dynasty chancellor Wei Zheng. The addition of inscriptions by a number of later scholars and artists have made the work both longer and more culturally (and materially!) valuable.

 

3. Zao Wou-Ki, Juin-Octobre 1985, 1985


Realized Price: HKD 510,371,000 (USD 65.8m)

Zao Wou-Ki, Juin-Octobre 1985, 1985
Zao Wou-Ki, Juin-Octobre 1985, 1985

‘Juin-Octobre 1985’ is Zao Wou-Ki’s largest and most valuable piece of art

 

Realized Price:     HKD 510,371,000 (USD 65.8m)

Venue & Date:     Sotheby’s, Hong Kong, 30 September 2018, Lot 1004

 


About the Artwork

 

Chines Modern artist, Zao Wou-Ki worked tirelessly for five months on his largest and most successful painting, which he, therefore, named ‘Juin-October 1985.’

 

It was commissioned early that year by the renowned architect I.M. Pei, with whom Zao had developed a close personal friendship after their first meeting in 1952. Pei needed a piece of art to hang in the main building of the Raffles City complex in Singapore, and Zao’s provided a striking painting, 10 meters in length and characterized by its open and abstract composition, as well as its transcendent and luminous palette.

 

2. Wu Bin, Ten Views Of Lingbi Rock, Ca. 1610

Realized Price: RMB 512,900,000 (USD 77m) 

 

Wu Bin, Ten Views Of Lingbi Rock, Ca. 1610
Wu Bin, Ten Views Of Lingbi Rock, Ca. 1610

The ten detailed drawings of a single stone sold for a staggering sum at a recent auction in Beijing, via LACMA, Los Angeles

 

Realized Price:     RMB 512,900,000 (USD 77m)

Venue & Date:     Poly Auction, Beijing, 20 October 2020, Lot 3922

 


About The Artwork

 

Little is known of the Ming Dynasty painter Wu Bin, but it is clear from his work that he was a devout Buddhist, as well as a skilled calligrapher and painter. During his prolific career, he produced over 500 portraits of arhats, those who have reached the transcendent state of Nirvana, but in fact, it is actually his landscapes that are most widely celebrated. Wu’s ability to capture the power of nature is also conveyed in his ten paintings of a single rock, known as a Lingbi stone.

 

Such pieces of rock, from the Lingbi county of the Anhui Province, were prized by Chinese scholars for their durability, resonance, beauty and fine structures. At nearly 28 meters in length, Wu’s handscroll provides a panoramic view of one such stone, accompanied by a wealth of written text that also exhibits his stunning calligraphy. Depicted from every angle, his two-dimensional drawings provide a panoramic view of the stone.

 

When it appeared at auction in 1989, the scroll was bought for the then-monumental sum of $1.21m. Its reappearance this decade fueled even more extravagant bidding, however, and the Poly Auction sale of 2010 concluded with a winning bid of $77m.

 

1. Qi Baishi, Twelve Landscape Screens, 1925


Realized Price: RMB 931,500,000 (USD 140.8m)

 

Qi Baishi, Twelve Landscape Screens, 1925
Qi Baishi, Twelve Landscape Screens, 1925

Qi Baishi’s series of landscape paintings smashed all records for the most expensive Chinese masterpiece ever sold at auction

 

Realized Price:     RMB 931,500,000 (USD 140.8m)

Venue & Date:     Poly Auction, Beijing, 17 December 2017

 

About The Artwork

 

Qi Baishi appears again in the top spot since his ‘Twelve Landscape Screens’ holds the record for the most expensive auction results for Chinese art. The series of ink landscape paintings sold at Poly Auction in 2017 for the jaw-dropping price of $140.8m, making Qi the first Chinese artist to sell a work for over $100m.

 

The twelve screens, which show distinct yet cohesive landscapes, uniform in size and style but different in precise subject matter, epitomize the Chinese interpretation of beauty. Accompanied by intricate calligraphy, Wu’s paintings embody the power of nature while conjuring a feeling of tranquility. He produced only one other work of this sort, another set of twelve landscape screens made for a Sichuan military commander seven years later, making this version even more valuable.

 

More On Chinese Art And Auction Results

 

These eleven masterpieces represent some of the most valuable pieces of Chinese art in existence, their elegance and technical skill demonstrating why interest in this area has surged globally in the past decade. For more outstanding auction results, see: Modern Art, Old Master Paintings and Fine Art Photography.



Author Image

By Mia ForbesMia is a contributing writer from London, with a passion for literature and history. She holds a BA in Classics from the University of Cambridge. Both at work and at home, Mia is surrounded by books, and enjoys writing about great works of fiction and poetry. Her first translation is due to be published next year.