Artist Auction Report – Sanyu

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Sanyu (常玉), regarded as the Chinese Matisse, has become the hottest rising star in China’s art auctions in 2019, setting a new record for the highest price ever paid for one of his nude paintings at auction. In this report, we provide valuable insights into aspects of Sanyu’s market performance in terms of artist background, exhibition, publication, and auction analysis.

*Data collected by AMJ (up to date as of December 3, 2019)

—Art Market Journal Editorial Team

Key Findings

1. Chinese market accounts for largest sales value

Auction sales in mainland China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan have accounted for 94% of total sales value and 75% of total lots sold, while lots sold above the value of 50 million yuan (US$7.25 million) have shown a perfect sell-through rate of 100% in China.

2. High average annual rate of return

Sanyu’s market has shown an average annual rate of return at auction of 56.02%. More than 30% of lots have been offered at auction more than once, and one lot has even been sold at auction for five times.

3. Jean-Claude Riedel holds the most major works by Sanyu

According to public information, 28 publications on Sanyu have been produced, and more than 50 exhibitions have featured his work, of which 22 have been solo shows. In terms of the current market, one of Sanyu’s most significant collectors, Jean-Claude Riedel, has collected the most major works by Sanyu, while Asian collectors hold almost all of the remainder of works by Sanyu.

4. Hong Kong and France are the major places failing to sell artworks by Sanyu at auction, with works on paper being the main type

Lots of work by Sanyu failing to sell at auction in Hong Kong's market presents a dispersed situation, with a small number of his sketches and prints failing to sell at each auction house. Lots failing to sell at auction in French market focused on the French auction house Artcurial, all of which have been sketches. The reason can be attributed to the lack of signature or inconsistency with Sanyu's usual style. However, as the literature on Sanyu became more and more complete relative clarity is being provided for the often confusing Sanyu works on paper market.

5. Price segment polarization

Lots sold for between 100,000 yuan (14,470 dollars) and 500,000 yuan (72,350 dollars) have made up 43% of total lots sold, making it the best-selling segment. Lots sold for above 5 million yuan (723,000 dollars) have represented 91% of total sales value. In addition, oil paintings sold at auction have represented 95% of total sales value, followed by prints, watercolors, sketches, and others.



Sanyu (1901 - 1966) was a Chinese–French artist known for his nude studies and calligraphic style. His work revealed a love for fusing the histories of European still life and figurative painting with traditional Chinese calligraphy.

Born into a wealthy family on October 14, 1901 in Nanchong, Sichuan Province, Sanyu was tutored in calligraphy by the Sichuan calligrapher Zhao Xi. His father, who was known in Nanchong for his skill at Chinese painting, oversaw his painting tutelage.

In 1921, under the influence of China’s May Fourth Movement, Sanyu traveled to Paris to continue his studies. During this period, he became close friends with Xu Beihong (徐悲鸿) and Jiang Biwei (蒋碧微), two Chinese artists who were also inspired by the migrating wave of art students.

While in Paris, most Chinese art students studied at the École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts, but Sanyu enrolled in the less academic school of Académie de la Grande Chaumière. Through his studies at the Académie, Sanyu discovered his talents for nude drawing.

It was also in this school that Sanyu met his future wife, Marcelle. Although they were divorced after two years of marriage, Sanyu was inspired by their love story, entered the “pink period”, where the colour occupied the majority of his work. Over the next decade, Sanyu continued to explore space and modelling based on this phase, driving Sanyu to new artistic heights.


Left: Sanyu, Marcelle, pencil on paper, 1928. Courtesy Antoine Chen;

Right: Marcelle Charlotte Guyot de la Hardrouyère, ca. 1925. Courtesy Marcelle Cocat.

In the same year, 1929, Henri-Pierre Roché, the art collector and dealer better known for supporting the careers of Duchamp, Brancusi, and Braque, showed a keen interest in Sanyu’s works and agreed to represent him. Roché collaborated with Sanyu for three years, and was not just the art dealer who discovered Sanyu’s talent but also one of the most vital collectors in Sanyu’s art market, with a personal collection of 111 oil paintings and 600 sketches by the artist. Sanyu fell in with the more creative artistic milieu flourishing at that time, and his lifestyle became increasingly extravagant, so, in order to reach a wider audience at a lower cost, Roché encouraged Sanyu to explore printmaking and oil painting.

Marking a significant turning-point in the artist’s career, in 1931, Sanyu faced financial difficulties because of the downturn in his family business back home. Almost without financial resources, soon afterwards in 1932, Roché ended their partnership. Shortly afterwards the Dutch American composer, Johan Franco, would become his friend and artistic manager.

In 1948, Sanyu traveled to New York, where he became a close friend of the renowned Swiss–American photographer Robert Frank. Furthermore, Frank began to support the Sanyu’s artistic career.


Sanyu and Johan Franco, ca. 1930. Courtesy Sotheby’s Taipei.

From 1950 Sanyu created less successful works. At his lowest point, Sanyu did not even have money for basic art materials, and instead chose cheap enamel house paint to outline some of his paintings. During this period, Sanyu’s paintings are comprised of simple lines and a black background with an increasing appearance of nudes, lions, and flowers.

Invited by the National Museum of History in Taipei for a proposed exhibition in 1964, he shipped 42 paintings there, but for reasons unknown, he failed to travel to Taiwan. Shortly thereafter, in 1966, Sanyu died in his studio in Paris.

Today, a large quantity of Sanyu’s works have remained in the safekeeping of the National Museum of History in Taipei, and the museum currently collects the greatest number of works by Sanyu of any art institution.

The former president of Sotheby’s Taiwan, Rita Wong, was impressed with Sanyu’s talent. Since the 1980s, Wong has explored Sanyu artistic career, which in turn played an important role in building a blue-chip market for the artist. She also located Sanyu’s friend and patron, Robert Frank, with whom she worked to rebuild the tombstone for the artist.


Robert Frank and Rita Wong at Sanyu’s restored grave, Pantin Cemetery, 1998.

In 1995, the National Museum of History in Taipei presented a retrospective exhibition of Sanyu while concurrently Sotheby’s Taiwan sold 32 lots of his work at a featured auction, and three lots sold at the modern and contemporary art sale.

In 2004, a solo exhibition at the Musée Guimet, “Sanyu, Language of the Body”, illustrated significant support for Sanyu’s work. During this time, Christie’s Hong Kong also became an active supporter, selling many high-quality artworks, among them, in 2006, Potted Chrysanthemums sold for HK$29.24 million (US$3.77 million), making it the first breakthrough high price for a Sanyu work.


Potted Chrysanthemums in a Blue and White Jardinie

CR150, 1950s, oil on masonite, 90 x 120 cm

Signed in Chinese and in French at lower right

In 2011, Five Nudes fetched HK$128 million (US$39.1 million), making it the first Sanyu lot sold for more than HK$100 million (US$12.88 million). His Chrysanthemums in a Glass Vase, painted in the 1940s, sold in 2013 in Shandong for HK$206 million (US$26.52 million), once again shattering the artist’s personal auction record.

Five Nudes sold again at Christie’s in 2019 for HK$303 million (US$38.72 million), almost tripping its return over 8 years.


Five Nudes

CR46, 1950s, oil on masonite, 120 x 175 cm

Signed in Chinese and in French at lower right

Exhibition and Publication

1. Exhibition

Over the last 30 years, there have been more than 50 Sanyu exhibitions, including 22 solos, accounting for 44% of the total.

Sanyu attended a certain number of art salons in Paris before he died, including Salon d'Automne, Salon des Indépendants, and Salon des Tuileries, especially Salon des Indépendants, which he attended 11 times. During his lifetime Sanyu’s solo exhibition exposure, however, was relatively low, with only four solos showcasing his work. Among them, two solos backed by his friend and arts patrons Johan Franco were held in Amsterdam. Therefore, Sanyu did not reach a wider audience and engage in the art market during his lifetime.

Posthumously, there have been 27 exhibitions of the artist’s work, with 18 shows held in Taiwan. It is widely accepted that the institutional exposure in Taiwan played a significant role in Sanyu’s academic value and promotion.

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2. Publication

According to public information, more than 28 publications on Sanyu have been produced, of which 9 have been produced by galleries, six in auction houses, and eight in museums or public education institutions.

Among them, the Li-Ching Cultural Foundation play a key role in promoting people’s knowledge of Sanyu’s life and work, with four publications on Sanyu produced, including SANYU Catalogue Raisonné: Oil Paintings (2001), SANYU Catalogue Raisonné: Oil Paintings Volume Two (2011), SANYU Catalogue Raisonné: Drawings and Watercolors (2015), and SANYU Catalogue Raisonné: Prints (2017). The foundation’s contribution has provided reliable references for the verification of Sanyu’s artworks.


Auction Analysis

85.21% sell-through-rate

Sanyu’s market has shown a respectable sell-through-rate of 85.21%, with only 194 out of 1,118 lots failing to sell at auction.

Oil paintings, drawings and watercolors account for the major auction lots

Oil paintings, drawings and watercolors have dominated Sanyu’s auction market, with a 93% combined market volume of the total lots offered. Among them, drawings and watercolors have had the largest market volume, 693, accounting for 75% of the total. Sanyu’s oil paintings have been sold for 3.078 billion yuan (US$448.8 million), accounting for 95% of the total, making this sector the biggest contributor to the artist’s market.

According to SANYU Catalogue Raisonné Oil Paintings (edited by Rita Wong), the total volume of Sanyu oil paintings is around 300, with 200 oil paintings belonging to personal collectors. In today’s Asian auction market, we have seen almost 100 oil paintings, 300 watercolor paintings, and 2000 drawings.


56.02% average annual rate of return

The number of lots sold for over 10 million yuan (US$1.45 million) at auction is 76, with 24 out of 76 lots having been offered more than once, and seven works offered more than three times. Among them, Pink Chrysanthemums in a White Vase has been offered at auction five times, the most for a single Sanyu.

The work with the highest average annual rate has been Sanyu’s Vase of Flowers with Blue Ground, painted in 1956, with its current sale price 50 times what it was 15 years ago.

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Oil painting market performance

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The market for Sanyu oils has been steadily building for a decade. The average price of Sanyu’s works came in at 70 million yuan (US$10.15 million) in 2019. Auction sales have seen the best performances in 2011, 2013, and 2019.

Following the Hong Kong market peak in 2011, Sanyu’s Five Nudes sold for HK$128 million (US$16.49 million) at Ravenel, setting a new auction record for the artist at that time. Sanyu’s market has sustained its importance in the long-term, with medium to high confidence in the artist’s market. Therefore, this result provides a snapshot of the upward trend of Sanyu’s auction market for many major players, including Sotheby’s and Poly.

In 2013, Sanyu’s Chrysanthemums in a Glass Vase, painted in 1940, sold in Shandong, China for 206 million yuan (US$29.82 million), shattering the artist’s auction record. At this point, the average price for Sanyu oils was between 15 million yuan (US$2.19 million) and 20 million yuan (US$2.87 million).

From 2014 to 2018, due to a lack of demand for Sanyu’s oil paintings and sustainable exploration of the artist’s work on the market, the average prices of oils ranged between 15 million yuan (US$2.19 million) and 20 million yuan (US$2.87 million). In 2016, marking the 50th anniversary of Sanyu’s death, his Chrysanthemums in a Glass Vase sold for HK$103.6 million (US$13.34 million), making it the second Sanyu lot sold for over HK$100 million (US$12.88 million).

In 2019, Sanyu’s oil paintings showed excellent performance, both in terms of highest sales value and average sales value. Five Nudes reappeared on the market, fetching HK$303 million (US$38.72 million) and setting a new auction record for the artist.

Drawing and watercolor market performance


The average sale price of drawings and watercolors achieved at auction has constantly increased over the last decade, signalling stable demand for Sanyu’s oil painting market. In addition to this, the two publications, SANYU Catalogue Raisonné: Drawings and Watercolors (2014) and SANYU Catalogue Raisonné: Prints (2017) have provided reliable references for the verification of Sanyu’s artworks.

In 2016, Sotheby’s Hong Kong presented a special selling exhibition, Ineffable Beauty, marking the 50th anniversary of Sanyu’s death. At this auction, artworks achieved a sell-through rate of 100%, and his 妩媚, painted in the 1920s and 1930s, fetched HK$5.24 million (675,000 dollars), making it the bestseller among all Sanyu’s watercolor paintings and signaling an important market position for works on paper.

Since then, the market for works on paper, especially for drawings and watercolors, has shown a rapidly increasing trend at auction. Major market players, including Christie’s and Ravenel, have also been active supporters of drawing shows by Sanyu. In addition to this, the average price of Sanyu’s drawings and watercolors peaked in 2016 at 200,000 yuan (28,940 dollars).

And 2018 saw the second-highest auction sale value for the artist’s watercolors and sketches, with his Sitting Nude, painted in the 1920s or 1930s, fetching HK$3.00 million (US$386,000).

Top Lots

Ninety percent of the total sales value has been accounted for by lots selling for above 5 million yuan (US$724,100). Only 3% of sales value has been accounted for by lots sold for above 500,000 yuan (US$72,410), but this accounts for 77% of the total sales volume. There is polarization between top lots and low-priced lots.

In terms of creation date, we have seen 18 of the artist’s works selling for above 50 million yuan (US$7.25 million), which include six lots painted in the 1930s and 1940s, and eight lots after the 1950s with a higher price segment.

The top three auction prices for Sanyu were established in 2019, including Nu selling for HK$198 million (US$25.2 million), Five Nudes for HK$303 million (US$38.72 million), and Potted Chrysanthemums for 77.05 million yuan (US$11.16 million).


Sanyu’s auction performance by geographical distribution

Mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and France account for the major auction markets for Sanyu.

Mainland China and Hong Kong dominated Sanyu’s auction market with an 87% combined total value of lots sold, while Sanyu’s auction market in France has only represented 12% of total sales value, nearly 25% by volume. In addition, Sanyu’s auction markets in the US and the UK have represented only 1% of the total volume.


Translation: Kirsten Wang 

Editor: Hutch Wilco