Specialist Sophia Zhou recalls the whirlwind months before the record-breaking sale of a once-in-a-lifetime, 11th-century scroll painting by the most revered figure in Chinese art history
On the evening of 26 November in Hong Kong, an 11th-century Chinese hand scroll sold for almost half a billion Hong Kong dollars, shattering the record for the most expensive object ever sold by Christie’s in Asia.
The scroll in question revealed a withered tree and weathered rock painted 1,000 years ago by Su Shi, a Song-dynasty scholar who is credited with reshaping Chinese aesthetic and literary culture.
‘Su Shi is a cultural giant in China,’ explains Christie’s Chinese paintings specialist Sophia Zhou. ‘Today schoolchildren still recite his poetry, and his influence is even felt in contemporary pop music.’
Surviving works by Su Shi are incredibly rare, and this scroll is particularly significant for its impact on Chinese art history. ‘Wood and Rock is such a familiar image to anyone who has studied Chinese painting — it is reproduced in nearly every text book,’ the specialist explains. ‘The dynamic brushwork and gradation of subtle ink washes really highlight Su Shi’s artistic achievements.’
The work was consigned to Christie’s from a private Japanese collection, but its whereabouts had been unknown for 80 years. Zhou recalls being blown away by witnessing the scroll being taken from its wooden box in Hong Kong and unfurled for the first time.
‘From that moment it was a whirlwind,’ she says. ‘We did a press launch in August, then had the art historian Alastair Sooke fly to Hong Kong to make a short film about the work. In October, we hosted a Su Shi symposium.’
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On the night of the sale more than 300 people filled Christie’s Hong Kong saleroom to see the scroll auctioned in Beyond Compare: A Thousand Years of the Literati Aesthetic, a special sale which celebrated a millennium of Chinese art.
‘The bidding for Wood and Rock lasted more than five minutes, although it felt much quicker,’ says Zhou. ‘I was on the phone at the time relaying the price to the underbidder here in Asia.’ When the gavel fell, the work sold for HK$463,600,000, equivalent to more than US$59 million, including fees.
‘I feel so privileged to have worked on such a historical sale. The more time I spent with the work, the more I was in awe of its modesty,’ Zhou reflects. ‘We really miss it now.’