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Boundless Space for the Imagination — Zao Wou-Ki's Worth Far Exceeds the Individual Value of his Art

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“29.09.64”, 1964, oil on canvas, 230 x 345 cm
Sold for US$ 19,712,015 Christie’s Spring Auction 2017 Hong Kong

 

Notwithstanding the extreme volatility of the global economy in recent years, the art market has gone through a process of generational change, renewal, and business transformation. Such new 21st century concepts and trends as crossboundary internationalism, financial funds, online direct dial, e-commerce, social media, and expositions are inescapable, and it has been difficult for any participant in the art market to avoid being swayed by these trends. However, certain traditional values have remained unshakable. For instance, galleries’ broker-agent business model, the academic research of museums and art organizations, the popular appeal of art expositions, and the star artists created by auction houses’ special and evening auctions. As the Asian art market accounts for an increasingly dominant global market share, such heavyweight contemporary classic Chinese artists as Sanyu, Wu Guanzhong, and Zao Wou-Ki have maintained their superstar status, and their works have consistently set new price records at spring and fall auctions. These artists were consequently among the top 100 artists with the highest transaction values in the global auction market in 2016 on Artprice.com.

 

On the afternoon of May 27, 2017, in Christie’s Spring Auction Preview room in the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, Zao Wou-Ki’s 1964 no. 500 abstract oil painting “29.09.64”– a pleasing, free-spirited work in deep blue with dimensions of 230 cm x 345 cm– stood like a celebrity on the main wall at the entrance to this evening auction. Countless visitors surrounded this work, examining it, photographing it, and discussing it from various perspectives, knowing that it would soon play the lead role in the auction. This work was one of the two works from the leading abstract Chinese painter Zao Wou-Ki’s peak artistic period during the 1960s. As expected, during the evening’s auction, the auctioneer announced that this painting would open at a price of HK$25 million.

As the members of the audience watched with bated breath, several groups of buyers made their competing bids. When the hammer fell at a price of HK$135 million, applause rang out among the participants, who had just bore witness to a final transaction price, including the buyer’s commission, of HK$152.86 million (US$19.71 million, or nearly NT$600 million). The work “29.09.64” thus set a new global record for the auction prices of Zao Wou-Ki’s art.

 

This painting was commissioned by a collector in France, and the father of the collector was an architect, who purchased the work from Zao Wou-Ki in 1969 via the Galerie de France. The painting originally had a height of 255 cm, not 230 cm, but 25 cm was trimmed from the lower margin under Zao Wou-Ki’s supervision when it was moved to a new home in Paris during the 1970s, at which Zao signed it again in the lower right corner. In 2015, Zao Wou-Ki’s wife, Françoise Marquet Zao, donated another of Zao’s large works from the 1960s (also 1964) – “Hommage à Edgar Varèse” (15.10.64) – to Switzerland’s Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts de Lausanne. This implies that the work“29.09.64” sold at the Hong Kong spring auction is the only 1960s large-dimension abstract painting by Zao Wou-Ki in private collection. The reason that early large works by Zao Wou-Ki are so few is because the artist’s studio had limited space during the early years, and was also due to the fact that European collectors seldom collected large paintings at that time. After 1958, Zao began cooperating with American galleries to expand his North American market. In addition, he moved to a new studio in 1961, and only then embarked on experimentation with largedimension painting. The most spectacular paintings from this key period are also the largest works. And in spite of the fact that the economic forecast remains very murky, it is notable that this work by Zao began a new chapter in auction history during the Christie’s 2017 spring auction.

 

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“4.4.58”, 1985, oil on canvas, 97 x 195 cm
Sold for US$5,689,345 Ravenel Autumn Auction 2011 Hong Kong

 

Taking Advantage of Zao Wou-Ki’s Great Appeal; Western Capital Lands in the Chinese Market

 

In the “Art Fortune” section of No. 71 of the Art News of China, which was published on June 19, Mr. Gao Fanding’s article“Zao Wou-Ki, Western Capital’s Market Landing Craft” attracted considerable attention. This article pointed out that the Lévy Gorvy Gallery, which was founded by auction experts Dominique Lévy and Brett Gorvy, held a “Willem de Kooning |Zao Wou-Ki” exhibition in New York with great fanfare at the beginning of 2017, and this exhibition juxtaposed the two great abstract artists of East and West. Willem de Kooning is prominent and widely collected in Europe and America, and Zao Wou-Ki has great appeal and influence in Asia. It should be noted that market share in the Greater China region has parted ways with the Western art market. Galleries hold Zao Wou-Ki in great esteem, and the added value brought by his art has long since far exceeded the value of his paintings by themselves. As a consequence, the Western capital market is becoming interested in the underlying significance of Zao’s work, which is boosting this artist’s visibility and influence throughout both East and West. In his article, Gao therefore likens Zao Wou-Ki to a “landing craft” used by Western capital to make a beachhead in China. At present, the selection of Zao Wou-Ki by Western art investors cannot but help to burnish the reputation of this already increasingly-prominent classic master artist.

 

Lévy Gorvy Gallery, which has locations in both New York and London, specializes chiefly in modern, postwar, and contemporary art. This major exhibition, which features both academic and commercial aspects, has cooperated closely with both the Willem de Kooning Foundation and the Foundation Zao Wou-Ki. While plans originally called for the Willem de Kooning | Zao Wou-Ki exhibition to be tour to Hong Kong in September 2017, according to the gallery, the exhibition has been prosponed to 2018, which provides a glimpse of the scale of its ambitions.

 

Zao Wou-Ki was born in Beijing in 1921, and passed away in 2013 in Switzerland. Zao spent most of his long 93-year life in France. His formative influences included his Chinese ancestry and cultural heritage, his French nationality, and his art training and experience. Zao engaged in close collaboration with mainstream European and American galleries for more than half a century; he was one of the most representative artists fusing Eastern and Western cultural influences, which gave him considerable international appeal. Thanks to the affluence and wellconnectedness of his family, his artistic career proceeded relatively smooth. Having lived much of his life in Europe, attaining fame in the West, and achieving illustrious success, Zao’s art can be said to have brought honor to China and the ethnic Chinese.

 

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“17.4. 64”, 1964, oil on canvas, 114 x 162 cm
Sold for US$4,925,373 Ravenel Autumn Auction 2009 Taipei

 

Paintings Promoted by Prestigious Galleries for Half a Century

 

After leaving China, Zao arrived in France in 1948, and he established an eight-year collaborative relationship with the Parisian art dealer Pierre Loeb starting in 1950. Afterwards, the Galerie de France – the largest gallery in Paris – became his agent. He also collaborated with American art dealer Samuel Kootz from 1958 to 1967, which gave him a foothold in the North American market. During the 1970s, after having been separated from his homeland for more than two decades, Zao visited relatives in China for the first time, and his influence gradually started to take root in Asia. Afterwards, Zao also collaborated with Japan’s Fuji Television Gallery; held an exhibition at the National Museum of History in Taipei, which marked his glorious return to Asia. Starting in 1980, Pierre Matisse, the grandson of the Fauvist painter Henri Matisse signed a contract with Zao Wou-Ki, under which Matisse would collect Zao’s work and promote his paintings in the United States, as well as in Europe. During the 1990s, the wellknown Swiss gallery Galerie Jan Krugier signed a collaboration contract with Zao, and the artist continued to hold solo exhibitions as far afield as in Taiwan and Japan. In 2003, Zao cooperated with New York’s prominent Marlborough Gallery. After promotions by many mainstream galleries for 40 to 50 years, Zao Wou- Ki not only has a strong market based in Europe and North America, but has also managed to expand his market to Asia in the wake of Asia’s economic ascent. To honor Zao Wou-Ki’s artistic achievements and contributions, he has been awarded such national honors as France’s medal of the Légion d’honneur, 3rd class; medal l’Ordre national du Mérite, 3rd class; the French Legion of Honor Medal in Art and Literature, 1st class; and the Paris Medal of Honor. In December 2002, following Chu Teh-Chun, he became the second painter of Chinese descent to be elected a lifelong art fellow of the Académie française, which is the French government’s highest honor for artists.

 

Apart from his official honors in France, Zao Wou-Ki also received the Japanese imperial household’s Praemium Imperiale award in 1994, which was major international news at the time. The Praemium Imperiale was established in 1988 as an arts and culture award by the Japan Art Association to commemorate the association’s former chairman, Prince Takamatsu Nobuhito, who had passed away in 1987. This award has been bestowed in October of each year starting in 1989. The award is granted in the five categories of painting, sculpture, architecture, music,and theater/film, and is intended to serve as a “Nobel Prize for the arts.” The first award in the painting category went to Willem de Kooning and David Hockney; Zao Wou-Ki was the sixth award-winner in this category.

 

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“26.01.60”, 1960, oil on canvas, 97 x 130 cm
Sold for US$3,414,604 Ravenel Autumn Auction 2016 Taipei

 

Establishment of the Foundation Zao Wou-Ki; Striking a Blow against Fakes, Promoting Extension of Zao’s Art

 

While Zao Wou-Ki was highly respected by the art community, he suffered much from illness during his last years. After he was found to have Alzheimer’s disease in 2005, he produce art occasionally, but had little contact with the outside world. He moved to Switzerland for convalescence in 2011, and passed away two years later. After Zao’s death, it was reported that his elder son, Zhao Jialing, was unhappy with his stepmother’s, Françoise Marquet Zao, handling of Zao’s medical arrangements and Zao’s estate, which led to a lawsuit. After the inheritance dispute had dragged on for two years, in 2015 Marquet held a press conference in which she explained that she was the“sole beneficiary” of Zao Wou-Ki’s estate, and had reached an agreement with Zao Wou-Ki’s elder son Zhao Jialing and her stepdaughter Roy Sin-May concerning protection of the integrity of the artist’s estate. In the future, Marquet will focus on art extension via the Foundation Zao Wou-Ki. The Foundation Zao Wou-Ki was established in Geneva, Switzerland during 2012, while the painter was still alive. The foundation does not actually possess any of the artist’s paintings, and does not sell or reproduce his work; instead, its chief mission is to certify Zao Wou-Ki’s works as genuine and engage in extension. The Foundation Zao Wou-Ki is audited by an external auditor, and is subject to the management and supervision of the Swiss federal government.

 

The curtain has temporarily closed on the dispute over Zao Wou-Ki’s estate. According to Marquet, Zao Wou-Ki’s works will be exhibited in China, Switzerland, Canada, and Singapore, and the foundation will make annual disbursements of US$30,000-50,000 for scholarship and art research.

 

As the value of Zao Wou-Ki’s works has gradually increased, fake works began appearing on the art market at an early date. Marquet is the sole heir to Zao Wou-Ki’s copyrights, and is the chairperson of Foundation Zao Wou-Ki. The foundation sponsors professional research on Zao Wou-Ki’s art, and is currently the sole organization with the right to investigate the source of works, inspect the authenticity of works, and issue guarantees of authenticity. In order to protect the interests of purchaser’s and collectors, the foundation can assist in providing verification to genuine works. As long as relevant parties follow the foundation’s guarantee application procedures, they can usually receive a response. Application for a guarantee certificate currently costs 600 Swiss francs for oil paintings and 350 Swiss francs for on-paper works. In addition, the foundation has commissioned the well-known French law firm FTPA to maintain its intellectual property rights and help stamp out fakes and forgeries.

 

Catalog Raisonné and Touring Exhibition; Ensuring Lasting Preservation of Zao’s Masterworks

 

The experts at the Foundation Zao Wou-Ki are engaged in collecting all possible information concerning the artist’s art, establishing files, and publishing a full catalog of the artist’s works. According to the Foundation’s current information, Zao Wou-Ki produced approximately 1,800 works between 1935 in 2008; these also include on-paper works (sketches, watercolors, ink paintings) and decorative art (carpets, tapestries, ceramics, porcelain, stage sets), as well as 400 postage stamps in an album with an annual directory. The Foundation Zao Wou-Ki is currently editing the Comprehensive Catalog of the 1935-2008 Paintings of Zao Wou-Ki (1920-2013), which will be in three volumes containing his 1935-1959 works, 1960-1979 works, and 1980-2008 works. The first volume it is expected to be published in the fall of 2018.

 

Although, as mentioned earlier, the Foundation Zao Wou-Ki provides appraisal of oil paintings and on-paper works, they have never issued guarantees for prints, and no other person or organization has the right to issue guarantees for prints. If interested parties wish to confirm that a print is genuine, they can refer to the Zao Wou-Ki - The Graphic Work. A Catalogue Raisonné 1937-1995 (Skørping, Heede & Moesturp, Denmark), which was edited by Jørgen ÅGERUP. This 1994 book contains 237 pages, and provides a full-scale record of all prints issued by Zao Wou-Ki during his early years. In addition, the 15-page bound album Zao Wou-Ki, The Graphic Work 1995-2000 (Skørping, Heede & Moesturp, Denmark) was published in 2000. According to our understanding, some fake oil paintings and prints have already appeared on the market, and collectors are advised to investigate before making purchases. If anyone doubts the authenticity of a work, they can ask the advice of an art expert or contact the Foundation Zao Wou-Ki.

 

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“La Mer perdue”, 1952, oil on canvas, 80.5 x 116 cm
Sold for US$4,327,598 Ravenel Autumn Auction 2012 Taipei

 

Donation of Estate and Preparation for a Retrospective Exhibition

 

After the death of Zao Wou-Ki in 2013, the China Cultural Centre in Paris displayed some of the artist’s recent works and what can be considered lifelong achievement works. This was the first exhibition of Zao’s work in France after the artist passed away.

 

Following the resolution of the dispute concerning Zao’s estate, Madame Marquet generously donated a number of her late husband’s works to French government institutions, including the Académie des Beaux-Arts, Musée Marmottan Monet, Musée Cernuschi, Musée Cantonal des Beaux-Arts de Lausanne, and the Musee de la Poste in Paris.

 

Among these institutions, the Musée Marmottan Monet received eight ink paintings and one volume of ink paintings and sanguine sketches, which can be dated back to 1948-1949, which was when Zao Wou-Ki had just arrived in France and was studying at the Académie de la Grande-Chaumière. This donation also included Zao Wou-Ki’s ceremonial sword as a member of the Académie française, which was designed by Zao’s friend and fellow artist Richard Texier and made by master jewelry & metalworker Goudji. This lot of works has been exhibited to the public since November 2016, and will continue to be on display throughout 2017.

 

For its part, the Musée Cernuschi received a lot of 38 works, which consisted of Zao Wou-Ki’s on-paper works, including sketches, watercolors, and ink paintings, porcelain paintings, and copper articles, ceramics, jades, and paintings by Chinese artist friends that had been collected by Zao. And as mentioned previously, Hommage à Edgar Varèse (15.10.64) Zao’s largest work from the 1960s was donated by Zao Wou-Ki’s wife Françoise Marquet Zao to the Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts de Lausanne in 2015.

 

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“Plantes tortillées”, 1954, oil on canvas, 115 x 147 cm
Sold for US$8,114,705 Ravenel Spring Auction 2014 Taiepi

 

Lasting Superstar Status in the International Art Market

 

Zao Wou-Ki painting career lasted for more than seven decades, and work from each period of his career has appeal for collectors. Generally speaking, prices are highest for his early works from the 1950s, works from his acrylic and oracle bone periods, his wildly cursive abstract period in the 1960s, and ethereal period during the 1980s. Probably all of the artist’s top 20 works in terms of prices are the products of these stages. His works’ collectors span Europe, North America, and Asia; they have impressive expertise and acumen, and have accumulated extensive connections and influence.

 

In the art market’s economic cycle, the market prices of Zao Wou-Ki’s works have maintained their superstar status, and the record high prices of Zao Wou- Ki’s work at this year’s fall auction shook the international auction market. Auction transactions reached a peak in 2013, the year the artist passed away, and according to data from Artprice.com, these transactions totaled roughly US$140 million (approximately NT$4.2 billion). Furthermore, in 2016, the transaction price of his works sold at auction totaled US$81.2 million (approximately NT$2.43 billion). This scale of transactions is roughly 3 to 4 times that of his works sold at auction in 2000. In 2016, Zao was ranked 14th among the world’s artists.

 

At present, now that the Western capital market is fully aware of Zao Wou-Ki’s influence, and milestones including his 2018 retrospective exhibition in Hong Kong, the publication of his chronological catalog, and the 100th anniversary of his birth in 2020-2021 approaching, we can look forward to his works generally fetching relatively high prices on the art market during the coming several years. Zao Wou-Ki’s art possesses a lasting classical appeal, and gives viewers boundless space for the imagination.

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