One of the key highlights of Christie’s Autumn 2018 auction season in Hong Kong, Beyond Compare: A Thousand Years of the Literati Aesthetic, realised HK$717,310,000 (just over $92 million), and was 90.4 per cent sold by lot and 98.7 per cent by value.
It was fitting that this special sale showcasing a millennium of Chinese art history was led by Su Shi’s Wood and Rock, a 1,000-year-old masterpiece by the scholar official who was one of the greatest cultural figures in the ancient world.
The scroll painting, which began an aesthetic revolution in China, sparked a bidding battle that lasted for just over five minutes before selling for $HK$463,600,000 / $59,505,898 (including buyer’s premium). As the hammer came down, applause rang out in the Grand Hall of the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre.
The price made the ancient artwork the most expensive object ever sold by Christie’s in Asia, surpassing the HK$348.4 million paid for an Imperial embroidered silk thangka on this day four years ago.
The second highest price in the 21-lot sale was for an extremely rare Ru ware sky blue ‘tea bowl’ (below), one of fewer than 100 pieces of Ru ware that survive intact today. Ru ware is regarded as the most beautiful of all Chinese ceramics, and its scarcity means it is highly coveted by collectors and institutions.
To offer some context, the National Palace Museum in Taipei houses 21 Ru wares, The Palace Museum in Beijing has 15, The National Museum of China has eight pieces in its collection, and the British Museum only four. The bowl, which is a recent discovery and was shown for the first time in a major exhibition in Osaka in 2016, realised HK$56,350,000.
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The next lot in the sale, an important Longquan celadon ‘kinuta vase’, is also representative of the objects that Su Shi and his fellow scholar officials would have interacted with on a daily basis. This extremely rare embodiment of the refined aesthetic of the Southern Song court achieved HK$42,850,000, a world auction record for a Longquan celadon ceramic.
The fourth-highest price on the night was achieved with the final lot, an important and extremely rare Jun ‘number four’ jardinière from the Yuan-early Ming dynasty (14th-15th century). Jun wares are some of the most striking ceramics of the Song, Jin and Yuan periods, and this piece sold for HK$33,700,000.
Fast-forwarding 1,000 years from the time Su Shi painted Wood and Rock, the influence of the Song literati aesthetic can be clearly seen in
Zhou Chunya’s Tree Series (1993), in which a
tree, reminiscent of Su Shi’s, coils skywards.
Zhou embarked on an intensive study of works by Chinese literati and their free, impressionistic style after returning to China from Europe in 1989. Fusing tradition and modernity, East and West, the painting sold for HK$30,100,000.
Landscapes and Calligraphy by Bada Shanren (1626-1705), created more than six centuries after Su Shi and 300 years before Zhou Chunya, further demonstrated the longevity of the the Song literati aesthetic tradition. Offered as the third lot, it realised HK$24,100,000, more than four times the low estimate.
After the sale, Jonathan Stone, Co-Chairman Asian Art and Christie’s Deputy Chairman Asia, remarked on how honoured Christie’s was to be entrusted with the sale of ‘such a culturally significant’ work as Su Shi’s Wood and Rock, with the price achieved ‘establishing its position amongst the most important works in Chinese history.’