By Hazel Parry and Simon Parry
Hong Kong, Oct 10 (DPA) It has been hidden away for more than 10 years because of its politically charged content – but when it goes to auction Friday, a masterpiece in Chinese contemporary art depicting the Tiananmen Square massacre is expected to fetch $4 million or more.
Yue Minjun’s “Execution”, a painting which adapts a 19th century Manet classic to echo the 1989 massacre, was spirited out of mainland China by late Hong Kong dealer Manfred Schoeni and sold in 1996 under strict conditions for just $32,000.
The buyer, then a fresh university graduate in his mid 20s working for an investment bank in Hong Kong, used two thirds of his annual salary to pay for the masterpiece and had to promise Schoeni, who feared its subject matter would cause the artist trouble, not to show it in public for five years.
The owner, who now divides his time between London and Hong Kong, later gave away a half share of the masterpiece to a jeweller in return for a ring that he proposed to his girlfriend with. He later split with his fiancée and never recovered the ring or the half share.
On Friday, the 1995 painting is expected to fetch between 3 and 4 million US dollars at a Sotheby’s auction where it is billed as “among the most important paintings of the Chinese avant-garde ever to appear at auction”.
With the current boom in demand for Chinese contemporary art, there is speculation among art dealers that “Execution” – which belongs to a field of art known as cynical realism – could become the first modern Chinese work to fetch over $10 million at auction.
Ironically, while Yue Minjun and his fellow artists had to smuggle their pictures out of China to galleries in Hong Kong for fear of political recriminations in the 1990s, he has now been embraced by the ruling communist party and offered his own government-sponsored gallery.
Speaking from London, the man who bought the painting as a young investment banker recalled how he saw “Execution” by chance when he dropped in at one of Manfred Schoeni’s galleries on his way to a coffee shop.
The Briton, who asked not to be identified, was already a customer of Schoeni and says that when he saw the painting tucked away at the back of the gallery he was “transfixed”. “I said ‘I have got to have that painting,’ but he told me ‘I don’t want you to have it’,” said the owner, who asked not to be identified.
“We were friends by then, and I negotiated and we worked out a deal. My side of the deal was to keep it out of sight for five years, and it has turned out to be more than a decade. No single human being apart from me set eyes on it until a few months ago when Sotheby’s and Christie’s turned up to have a look at it.”
Now aged 36 and retired from banking, the owner described the masterpiece as being “the story of modern China” and paid warm tribute to Schoeni for his pioneering work in bringing contemporary art out of China long before its current boom in popularity.
Schoeni, who was stabbed to death in a burglary on a luxury villa in the Philippines he was sharing with friends in May 2004, had “tilted the cultural axis of China” through his pioneering work, he said. “It is terrible that he should have died for no reason,” he added.
Coincidentally, the owner met with Schoeni’s widow and daughter at an art fair in London only last week. Schoeni’s Hong Kong gallery, which still specialises in contemporary Chinese works, is now run by his 26-year-old daughter Nicole.
Sotheby’s specialist Alexander Branczik said the auction house was hugely excited about Friday’s auction. It is the first piece of Chinese contemporary art to have its own separate, dedicated single-painting catalogue from a major auction house.
“The guy who bought this had just finished university and taken a job with an investment bank in Hong Kong. People might say ‘But now it’s worth 1.5 million pounds’ – but at the time it was a significant outlay. It was a lot of money for him to invest.”
Branczik added that he did not believe the boom in prices for contemporary Chinese art had peaked yet as wealthy young buyers from mainland China are now buying highly-priced works at international auctions and taking them back to their home country.