Special Retrospective on the 50th Anniversary of the Artist's Death - SANYU
On a winter afternoon late in 2016, I was on my way to the National Museum of History (NMH) in Taipei’s Nanhai Road. My purpose was twofold: one was to visit the “Exhibition of Selected Restored Works by Sanyu” that displayed four of the artist’s representative works that had undergone careful restoration. Secondly, I wanted to meet Kao Yu-chen, the Vice Director of the NMH, and hear her highly informed views on Sanyu’s art. She is one of the leading experts on Sanyu’s paintings, having devoted much of her life to researching his work, and was a contributor of scholarly essays to the 1995 catalog published for the exhibition “The Art of Sanyu and Pan Yuliang.” She also organized the 2001 Sanyu centenary exhibition “Out of Place: The Art of Sanyu,” and is heavily involved in preparations for the special retrospective commemorating the 50th anniversary of the painter’s death, titled “Sanyu · Nostalgia · Paris: The Paintings of Sanyu.” It appears that in addition to all of the 49 oil paintings of the NMH Sanyu collection, this special exhibition will also display a considerable number of paintings on loan from both domestic and international collectors, possibility making it the largest solo exhibition of works by Sanyu ever held – a piece of news that has stirred up quite a bit of excitement among Sanyu aficionados around the world.
NMH Collection Protected Under the Cultural Heritage Preservation Act
The “Exhibition of Selected Restored Works by Sanyu” can be found in the National Museum of History’s third floor exhibition hall, a sort of mini-display featuring four oil paintings together with articles and essays documenting the restoration process, and foreshadowing the spectacular 50th anniversary retrospective soon to come. The paintings may cover only a single wall, yet each of them is a magnificent masterpiece of dazzling beauty, each a mature work inviting the viewer to linger a little longer. They are titled “Chrysanthemums,” “Bird and Snake,” “Two Ladies,” and “Full Moon,” four lots that came into the possession of the museum in a severely damaged condition, since the previous proprietors had not stored them properly. Earlier restoration efforts were only partly successful, largely due to a lack of funds, but thankfully they have now been restored to their original state by the skill and expertise of experienced painting restorer Kuo Chiang-sung.
“Two Ladies”, 1950s, oil on board, 101 x 121 cm, Collection of the National Museum of History, Taipei, Taiwan
The Taipei National Museum of History Sanyu collection contains a total of 52 works, most of which are representative works from the 1950s and 1960s, the later years of the artist’s career. They constitute an important part of humanity’s cultural heritage, and among them are 42 that Sanyu sent to the then R.O.C. Minister of Education Huang Chi-lu in 1964 as part of a résumé to help him get a teaching job in Taiwan. But problems with his passport prevented the artist from making the trip, and he would die only two years later in an accident in his apartment. The paintings, however, which represent most of his best work, have remained in Taiwan to this day, even though their creator never once set foot on the island. In 1968, the Ministry of Education donated the 42 paintings to the National Museum of History. The collection grew further in 1986, when five works formerly in the possession of cultural attaché Kuo You-shou in Paris were added. Another two oil paintings had already found their way to the museum in 1980. The latest additions were three sketches bought in 2011, making up the total number of 52 of Sanyu’s works currently housed in the National Museum of History. A press release by the museum states that according to conservative estimates, the value of the entire collection can be put at more than NT$5 billion (approx. US$160 million). This is truly a rather conservative appraisal in my opinion, and it wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration to assert that the whole collection might well be worth about twice that much.
“Chrysanthemums”, 1957, oil on board, 151 x 77.5 cm, Collection of the National Museum of History, Taipei, Taiwan
Among the many outstanding works in the collection, two – “Four Nudes” and“Chrysanthemums” – have already been designated as “significant antiquities,” in accordance with a review by a panel of experts assembled by the Ministry of Culture (MOC), which confirmed a provisional classification submitted earlier by the museum. In 2016, the MOC issued a revised version of the Cultural Heritage Preservation Act, which aims to “preserve and enhance cultural heritage, enrich the spiritual life of the citizenry, and promote the multi-cultural environment of the Republic of China.” Under the act, “cultural heritage” comprises a wide range of items having historic, cultural, artistic and/or scientific value that are designated or registered as tangible or intangible cultural assets. The act’s classification system categorizes “works of art” as one of nine distinct types of tangible cultural assets, which are given the general designation “antiquities.” In accordance with their rarity and specific value, these are further subcategorized as “national treasures,” “significant antiquities,” and “ordinary antiquities.” Clearly, the latest amendments to laws pertaining to cultural heritage protection have provided museums with very useful additional tools to better preserve works of art, and at the same time raise public awareness about their importance and aesthetic appeal.
“Four Nudes Sleeping on a Gold Tapestry”, 1950s, oil on board, 123 x 141.5 cm, Collection of the National Museum of History, Taipei, Taiwan
By contrast, a few decades ago Sanyu’s 42 oil paintings from France were more or less rotting away in inadequate storage facilities of the Ministry of Education. Through long years of neglect, the paintings became damaged by dampness, the colors began to run and dissolve, and some of the works deteriorated so badly that previous restoration efforts largely failed, also due to budgetary restraints. So it was not until first preparations got under way for the great 50th anniversary retrospective that the NMH found the funds to commission a complete and detailed restoration of the paintings, a project that took a whole year and also saw all 49 oil paintings put into new frames and a documentary produced for educational purposes. Public institutions are often hampered by complex regulations and reams of red tape, whereas private organizations are usually a lot more flexible. Therefore, real credit goes to museums and public galleries that can present important works in a fashion that is lively and creative as well as professional and academically sound.
Special Retrospective to Boost Business Opportunities in Cultural / Creative Industries
Sanyu was born in Sichuan, China, on Oct 14, 1901, and died in Paris, France, on Aug 12, 1966. It was a life filled with artistic brilliance, but also much loneliness. Practicing calligraphy from elementary school onwards, he soon mastered the fluid lines and sure brushstrokes essential to wash and ink. Later, his natural artistic talent made him a highly regarded painter in European art circles, where he earned especial praise and admiration for the way he combined a penchant for economy of line with a dashing elegance, developing a style that deftly merged the understated beauty of the Eastern tradition with the free spirit of Western art. His unique approach earned him the moniker “Matisse of the East.”
Today, Sanyu has been dead for 50 years, and since he left no immediate family behind, the paintings he had sent to Taiwan became government property. As the great retrospective is just around the corner, and with much of his work now in the public domain, many players in the cultural and creative industries are eagerly eyeing the upcoming business opportunities. Media Sphere Communications (MSC), an affiliate of the China Times Group, is one of the media companies planning to partner the NMH anniversary exhibition, and a big part of their proposal envisions the NMH licensing MSC to produce and market a range of Sanyu themed merchandize, including tea services, mugs, posters, pillows, tablecloths, napkins, and wine gift baskets with Sanyu’s art on the bottles’ labels. These and other items of commemorative merchandize are certain to make a major contribution to the commercial success of the upcoming event.
The National Museum of History is a stately 60-year-old structure built in the style of the Ming and Qing dynasties, with red walls and turquoise roof tiles. Located in the Nanhai Academy area, the tall palace-like building overlooks the beautiful premises of the Taipei Botanical Garden, whose many trees, shrubs and flowers create a green oasis in the heart of the metropolis. The Lotus Pond enjoys particular popularity, attracting countless painters, photographers, poets, and writers wishing to admire and capture the flowers’ beauty throughout the changing seasons. The museum’s second floor features a Chinese-style veranda with long benches from which visitors can take in the surrounding scenery. On the third and fourth floor one is afforded even greater views of the Botanical Garden and the Lotus Pond while sipping a cup of tea or coffee in the stylish cafés. For the imminent special retrospective, the fourth floor coffee shop has been refurbished as the “Sanyu Café,” marking a very rare example of an artist-themed bistro in Taiwan. The café’s bright and elegant interior design harmonizes perfectly with the building’s traditional Chinese style, thus mirroring the most defining characteristic of Sanyu’s creative approach, which so successfully blended Western and Oriental elements. In recent years, the government has promoted the rapid development of cultural and creative industries, and the National Museum of History’s innovative business model, allowing visitors to combine the pleasure of art appreciation with the enjoyment of gastronomic delights, is drawing new crowds in search of a fresh kind of recreational experience.
In Europe, North America, and Japan, museum gift shops and art-themed restaurants or cafés have been en vogue for quite some time, offering a nice balance of education and entertainment. Examples are the souvenir shop of the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo, and the Yoshitomo Nara Restaurant located on the Omotesando, both of which attract countless painting aficionados. Sanyu is easily the most popular painter among the first wave of Chinese-born artists making their way in the Western art world, and it is good to see that the NMH is now utilizing its extremely valuable Sanyu collection to make an important contribution to Taiwan’s tourism industry–it would be a bit of a shame to leave all the glory to the National Palace Museum! Overall, today’s museums should no longer just be purveyors of “top-to-bottom” of education, but rather expand their traditional role to embrace interactive formats and offer all kinds of fun experiences that visitors can share and “like” on social media and other digital networks. Some museums now allow photos to be taken in certain display areas, and these pictures, when shared on the Web, can help to boost visibility and increase visitor numbers. Of course, the above-mentioned art-themed merchandise, posters, gifts, and catalogs also remain crucial tools in supporting the trend towards more participatory museums.
Auction Prices Climbing on Eve of Special Sanyu Exhibition
First rumors of a planned special retrospective of Sanyu’s work surfaced among collectors in the spring of 2015. Originally, the Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts was to be the venue of the exhibition, intended to open in November 2015. News of this also appeared on the museum’s official website, and some collectors even received official letters asking them to loan their Sanyu works to the event, which was supposed to show some 60 oil paintings, both from the artist’s early and late period, as well as numerous prints and works on paper. But the retrospective at the Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts did not materialize, possibly because a new curator took over the reins, and there were divergent opinions on how to run the exhibition. But there was never any doubt that the 50th anniversary of thisimportant painter’s death would have to be commemorated in a fitting fashion, and there was widespread discussion in the art community about when and where the retrospective would eventually take place, and who would be put in charge of it.
“Five Nudes”, 1950s, oil on fiberboard, 120 x 175 cm, Sold for US$16,493,573
Ravenel Spring Auction 2011 Hong Kong
Sanyu was not what one would call a very prolific artist. In total, he produced about 300 oil paintings, less than 300 watercolors, about 2,000 sketches, and a small number of sculptures and prints. Regardless of the genre, any work with a certified provenance that has been documented in some sort of catalog or other pertinent publication is likely to become a coveted item in the international art market. With the big anniversary retrospective coming up, the years 2015 and 2016 were still very good ones for sales of Sanyu art, with a total turnover of al least NT$1 billion (approx. US$32.25 million). The single most expensive work to change owners during that period was “Nu,” a watercolor that sold at Sotheby’s Hong Kong for a record NT$21.19 million (approx. HK$5.24 million / US$675,750). Through specially themed events, auction houses have contributed to a considerable rise in prices for nude sketches, pushing them up to around HK$1 million, as compared to NT$1 million only a few years back.
Sanyu’s oil paintings in particular have always been hot items on the art market, and acquiring even just one of them is a dream for any serious collector of the artist’s work. Auction houses know that such lots are almost guaranteed to sell fora very good price. In 2016, Christie’s Hong Kong put up for bid the oil on masonite painting “Chrysanthemès dans un vase en verre” (91.6 x 125cm), originally in the possession of the Levy Family in Paris. The pre-auction estimate was HK$20-30 million, but as a result of some fierce bidding from numerous collectors and art brokers, the gavel only fell when the price had gone all the way up to HK$91 million. Add to that the buyer’s commission, and the painting changed hands for a total of HK$103.58 million. Both the winning and the second highest bid (the latter by telephone) were made by collectors from Taiwan. In one fell swoop, this made “Chrysanthemès dans un vase en verre” the second most expensive Sanyu work ever to be sold at auction, just behind the current record holder “Five Nudes,” a painting which sold in 2011 at Ravenel Hong Kong for NT$475 million (approx. HK$128.32 million / US$16.50 million). On a side note, it would appear that the buyer of the above-mentioned watercolor “Nu” was also a Taiwanese collector. Clearly, the majority of Sanyu’s works are still to be found in Taiwan, whether they are held by private collectors or form part of museum and gallery collections.
In 2016, many auction houses also put up for bid a fairly large number of Sanyu’s sketches. Those of them which were recorded in Rita Wong’s authoritative catalog virtually all found a buyer without problems. In early December, longestablished Paris auction house Artcurial also offered up many sketches, but some of these were of doubtful provenance, as they were not signed by the artist, or done in a style not at all typical for Sanyu. Consequently, many of the lots did not perform too well, and some didn’t. In 2016, many auction houses also put up for bid a fairly large number of Sanyu’s sketches. Those of them which were recorded in Rita Wong’s authoritative catalog virtually all found a buyer without problems. In early December, longestablished Paris auction house Artcurial also offered up many sketches, but some of these were of doubtful provenance, as they were not signed by the artist, or done in a style not at all typical for Sanyu. Consequently, many of the lots did not perform too well, and some didn’t
“Cat Sleeping on a Chair”, 1929, oil on canvas, 73 x 50 cm, Private collection
Collecting Art as an Investment for Everyone
The global economy continued to linger in the doldrums during 2016, negatively impacted by many events and developments, such as continuing wars and unrest in the Middle East, a spate of terrorist attacks all over the world, the UK population’s Brexit vote, the bitterly fought US presidential election, and tensions in the South China Sea, to name just a few. At the same time, even now there are fears of another financial crash, possibly triggered by a black swan event, meaning that many investors have adopted a watch-and-wait attitude – an outlook that is unlikely to change in 2017. All this has also influenced the art markets, leading to a sort of polarization phenomenon where extremely expensive and very low-priced items enjoy the greatest interest among collectors, while medium-range lots are often neglected, falling victim to a price dichotomy fueled by financial restraints
and buyer psychology.
Because of their unique style and relative rarity, most of Sanyu’s works have always fallen in the high-end bracket. Of course there are many other highly renowned Chinese-born Western-style painters, such as Zao Wou-ki and Wu Guanzhong, and if you tell people that you have some of their original works hanging on your walls, it is like telling people that you are loaded. But if you can afford to collect oil paintings by Sanyu – well, that puts you in a category of its own, not only because they command prices only the really wealthy are able to pay, but also because it takes a true connoisseur of fine art to appreciate his deceptively simplestyle. In his younger years, anyu lived the good life, relying partly on family money and then on his art, but for various reasons he spent much of his later years in relative solitude and poverty. Surely the artist would not have dreamt that 50 years after his death auction houses, collectors, and art dealers around the world would be chasing after his works, and that a single painting like “Chrysanthemès dans un vase en verre” would sell for as much money as the combined lots at some smaller auctions.
“Four Nudes”, 1950s, oil on board, 95.5 x 125 cm, Private collection
Since Sanyu’s death in 1966, auction houses and galleries like Drouot and Jean-Claude Riedel in Paris have helped to make the artist’s work popular with collectors around the world. In Taiwan, it was at first through Antoine Chen that Sanyu became better known to a wider audience, among other things through exhibitions at the Dimension Endowment of Art, Lin & Lin Art Gallery, and Jia Art Gallery, as well as the catalogs published for these events. Many experts and institutions were involved in the preparation of previous NMH exhibitions of Sanyu’s work, including Rita Wong and major auction houses on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. Later, the Tina Keng Gallery also joined the ranks of those promoting Sanyu’s work, and so, after many years of patient research and increasing market presence, prices for the artist’s work began their steady and continuing climb. The market performance of other “classic” Chinese-born artists’ output may have been impacted by financial crises and economic slumps, leading to plummeting prices and even lack of sales, but none of this applies to Sanyu: prices for his work, especially his oil paintings, show no signs of dropping whatsoever, but remain on par with those of many great Western artists. Those who failed to buy some of his oil paintings when they were still in the range of several tens of thousands US dollars may now regret their indecision, because it does not look like prices will return to that level anytime soon. Today, as much as millions or even tens of millions of US dollars are paid for his oil paintings. Of the roughly 200 Sanyu oil paintings in private hands, more than half are still owned by Taiwanese collectors, with most of the rest distributed among aficionados from South Korea, Southeast Asia, mainland China, Hong Kong, and France. Investing in fine art has certainly become a growing trend in Taiwan.
Who will be the next Sanyu on theinternational art market? It may be too soon to tell, and he or she might well turn up in some completely unexpected place. Do your research, read a lot of relevant material, go to as many exhibitions as you can, and after years of paying your dues, you too might become a successful art collector. In 2015, Norwegian explorer, writer, publisher, and art collector Erling Kagge published a book titled “A Poor Collector’s Guide to Buying Great Art,” in which he dispenses some useful advice to all those interested in building a collection on a budget. Instead of telling his readers to focus on the same artists and works that dominate his own collection, he asks them to develop an eye for promising new artists, and stresses that nothing helps you to become a discerning connoisseur of art like visiting museums, galleries, and exhibitions as often as you possibly can.
“Full Moon”, oil on board, 156 x 78 cm, Collection of the National Museum of History, Taipei, Taiwan
The NMH exhibition titled “Sanyu·Nostalgia·Paris” will run from March 11 to June 18, and is set to be the largest retrospective of the artist’s work ever held. Not long after its opening, art aficionados can also look forward to Art Basel Hong Kong (March 23-25), offering further opportunities to enjoy interesting works of the highest quality. We are all looking forward to these exhibitions, and hope that many Sanyu fans from all over the world will take this rare opportunity to visit Taipei and join us to participate in one of the biggest art events of the year.