Sotheby’s announced that it will be offering Zao Wou-ki’s 1958 untitled oil painting at its Modern art evening sale on March 31 and set the estimate at ($7.7m-$10m). While that’s certainly no small amount, it is widely being regarded as conservative for the artist and a sign of his shrinking market.
Wou-ki, an artist of Chinese and French heritage, is well known for his oil paintings that combine Eastern and Western techniques. Since his death in 2013, demand for his work on secondary market has gone through the roof. Despite this however, this painting is being deaccessioned by New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum where it has been since it was gifted by the original buyer in 1964.
According to ArtPrice, Wou-ki was the number one Chinese artist outside of China in terms of auction turnover, bringing in an average of $31.25m. He made headlines last September when his painting 23.05.64 sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong for $11.5m, more than 4000% increase in value. The painting was originally purchased in 1991 for $78,000 at Breist auction house and sold for three times that amount at Calmels, ten years later.
Despite this growth however, his market continued to rise when his monumental tryptic masterpiece, Juin-Octobre 1985, set three auction records in one night, including the highest price for a work by an asian painter, sold for $65m in Hong Kong. Bloomberg reported that the buyer originally bought the triptych in 2005 for $2.3m, making the sale 28 times the original price and all the more significant for Wou-ki’s market.
A prolonged legal battle over the artist’s estate between his third wife, Francoise Marquet, and his son from his first wife, Jia-Ling Zhao, is said to have contributed to his secondary market spike in demand as the rights to his unsold paintings remained in limbo after his death, stopping supply. Ever since a French court ruled in favour of Marquet however, his work has been ubiquitous on the market. Wou-ki’s works were at most major art fairs last year, and this year Kamel Mennour is planning an exhibition for the artist in both London and Paris, marking the first solo exhibition for the artist since the settlement of the case.
The increase in availability for his work could potentially be the reason behind Sotheby’s low estimate for the painting, but they haven’t confirmed. The untitled painting for sale comes from the artist’s time during his first years in Paris and references an ancient Chinese practice of inscribing oracles on animal bones. Samuel Rosenman, the US democratic judge and first White House counsel, donated the work to the Guggenheim in 1964 and it has rarely, if ever, been exhibited. The sale will benefit the museum’s acquisition fund.
The museum has been actively focusing on growing their Chinese modern and contemporary collection via the Asian Art Initiative, but is uncertain why they are deaccessioning this particular work and whether the proceeds will be used to acquire more works by Asian artists.
The work will be on view at the auction house’s New York location from 5-10 February ahead of the sale.