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‘My highlight of 2017’ — Zao Wou-Ki’s 29.09.64

Contemporary Asian art specialist Clara Rivollet reflects on the excitement generated by the reappearance of a large work that had been considered ‘missing’. When it sold in Hong Kong in May, it fetched a word-auction record for the artist 

The location of Zao Wou-Ki’s 29.09.64, thought to be the Chinese artist’s largest painting from the 1960s to remain in private hands, had until recently been unknown. ‘I had dreamed of tracing this work,’ confesses Clara Rivollet, Contemporary Asian Art specialist at Christie’s in Paris. So it came as quite a shock to Rivollet when, ‘on a gloomy Sunday in January’, she received a phone call inviting her to view the work just outside Paris.

Born in Beijing in 1920, Zao Wou-Ki studied fine art in his homeland before moving to Paris in the late 1940s. He painted monumental abstract canvases that took cues from French Impressionism and Abstract Expressionism, garnering praise from artists such as Joan Miró and Pablo Picasso. Today his early works are considered some of the artist’s most powerful and influential paintings.

‘I was blown away,’ says Rivollet, recalling her first impressions of the missing work from 1964. ‘The painting was too big for the apartment, and I could only imagine the impulsiveness of the owner’s father, who had bought it directly from the artist’s studio in 1969.’

‘The painting was too big for the apartment, and I could only imagine the impulsiveness of the owner's father, who had bought it directly from the artist’s studio in 1969’

The work was exhibited at Christie’s in Paris before being shipped to Hong Kong ahead of the sale on 27 May. Viewers flocked to the saleroom. ‘I can't even begin to count the number of selfies taken with the painting,’ the specialist says. ‘Everyone wanted to take home a piece of the work. The security agent even told me that one woman who came to the viewing had cried! We had a feeling that the sale would be a milestone in the history of the Asian contemporary art market.’

The work was the focus of a keenly contested bidding battle on the phones. With fees it achieved HK$152,860,000 — around $19.7 million — more than tripling its lower estimate and setting a world-auction record for the artist.

‘With strong interest from Europe and America,’ says the specialist, ‘it was a sign that Zao Wou-Ki’s market is becoming truly international.’ This much was again underlined in November when Zou Wou-Ki’s 29.01.64  sold for HK$202,600,000/US$26,063,431, establishing another new world record for the artist and setting the highest price ever paid for an oil painting by an Asian artist.