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Print Edition> Lifestyle
UPDATED: June 17, 2011 NO. 25 JUNE 23, 2011
Priceless Art Piece
A painting by Qi Baishi sets a new world auction record for modern and contemporary painting and calligraphy

PRICELESS WORK: The art piece by Qi Baishi, combining an ink painting and calligraphy scrolls, was auctioned off at 425.5 million yuan ($65.46 million) in Beijing on May 22 (XINHUA)

On May 22, the China Guardian Spring Auction witnessed a new auction record of modern and contemporary painting and calligraphy. During this auction themed Grand View: Chinese Paintings Highlight, a painting by China's prestigious painter Qi Baishi (1864-1957) was auctioned off at 425.5 million yuan ($65.46 million).

This art piece has two parts: an ink wash painting depicting an eagle on a pine branch and two calligraphy scrolls that flank the painting. The Chinese characters in the calligraphy scrolls mean "a long life and a peaceful world." It was painted when Qi was 82 years old, the prime of his art life.

Originally, this painting was collected privately in San Francisco, the United States. In 2005, the ink painting was purchased by Chinese collector Liu Yiqian for 6.16 million yuan ($948,000) through an auction in Shanghai. In 2010, Liu bought the calligraphy scrolls through another auction in Shanghai at the price of 12.992 million yuan ($2 million).

Measuring 100 cm by 266 cm, this ink painting is the largest art piece left by Qi. With the calligraphy scrolls that measure 65.8 cm by 264.5 cm, this giant combination had drawn great attention before the auction and experienced a theatrical auction this time.

The starting bid was 88 million yuan ($13.54 million), but the first bidder directly raised the price up to 100 million yuan ($15.38 million). After 15 minutes, the price had reached to 300 million yuan ($46.15 million) and the bidders burst into an uproar. Finally the hammer fell at the price of 370 million yuan ($56.92 million) after an intense 50 rounds of bidding, totally 425.5 million yuan ($65.46 million) with the commission.

"This is absolutely amazing," said Wang Yannan, Managing Director of China Guardian Auctions Co. Ltd. Asked if this painting marks a peak of modern and contemporary Chinese painting and calligraphy, Wang said, "We hardly find art works of such high quality, and this piece is really one of Qi's best works."

This is the second-highest amount paid for a piece of art at auction on the Chinese mainland. In 2009, an 11th-century scroll by Chinese calligrapher Huang Tingjian (1045-1105) fetched 436.8 million yuan ($67.2 million) at China's Poly Auctions.

Born in a farmer's family in Hunan Province in 1864, Qi didn't receive any formal artistic training. As a child he loved to copy from a famous Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) painting manual The Mustard Seed Garden. At 14 he became an apprentice woodcarver, and he went on to master poetry, calligraphy, painting and the traditional art of seal carving. During middle age he traveled widely throughout China, and it was after he moved to Beijing in the 1920s that his mature style emerged. He gradually became a household name, best known for the vivid depiction of flowers, birds and shrimps.

"His paintings have not only affected numerous people in China, but have won global respect," said Guo Tong, Manager of the Department of Modern and Contemporary Painting and Calligraphy of China Guardian. "He is one of a clutch of Chinese artists whose works sell well at international art markets."

In the past few years, Qi's paintings have sold for nearly as much as more established household names, such as Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol, according to Art Price, a France-based art market information provider. Art Price made this conclusion after compiling data from 6,000 auction houses around the globe.

Shelagh Vainker, Curator of Chinese Art at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, which has the largest collection of 20th-century Chinese paintings in Britain, said that Qi had a broad following because of the "instant visual appeal" of his pictures that are often painted in a "light, slightly uplifting way." The pictures "reward deeper contemplation."

"The brushwork is very good and I know some extremely well-educated people in China who would regard him as the No.1 Chinese artist of the 20th century," Vainker said.

Patti Wong, Chairwoman of Sotheby's Asia, said Qi's work has grown in value over the past two decades. Twenty years ago Qi was much sought after by U.S. buyers who had worked in China. Now, Qi features in "every important Chinese collection," according to Wong. In November 2009, a series of Qi's paintings entitled Flowers and Insects sold for a record equivalent of $12.3 million.

In 2007 his Peaches and Fire Crackers sold for about $13 million at Sotheby's in Hong Kong. According to Art Price, in 2009, 73 art pieces of Qi were auctioned off at the price of more than $1 million each, and in the first five months of 2011, more than five art pieces of Qi were auctioned off at the price of over 10 million yuan ($1.54 million) each. On May 15, just one week before the 425.5-million-yuan auction, Qi's another painting A Hundred Shrimps was auctioned off for 120 million yuan ($18.46 million) at the China International Cultural Industries Fair held in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province.

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