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Christie’s Expects $51M for One of China’s ‘Da Vinci’ Scrolls, But Provenance Questions Remain

Centuries before Wester Europe coined the term, “renaissance man,” artist Su Shi moonlighted as a pharmacologist, gastronome, and statesman for the Song Dynasty.

Illustration detail of “Wood and Rock” scroll by Su Shi (image courtesy Christie’s)

Having smashed records in its New York auction of the Salvator Mundi, Christie’s intends to capitalize on its market momentum with the impending November sale of a Chinese scroll by Su Shi, a legendary 11th-century artist from the Song Dynasty.

There are only two known scrolls produced by the artist, and this one (referred to as “Wood and Rock”) is the first to ever appear at auction, according to Christie’s. The auction house also tells Hyperallergic that the companion scroll, “Bamboo and Rock” currently resides in Beijing’s National Art Museum. Other examples of Su’s work are housed in Chinese institutions like the Shanghai Museum and Taipei’s National Palace Museum.

Drawing comparisons to Christie’s blockbuster sale of the Salvator Mundi — whose attribution to Da Vinci has been vehemently called into question by some scholars in recent months — the marketing push behind the Su scroll emphasizes the artist’s renaissance-like qualities. (The auction house has even released the cheesy promotional video below.)

In addition to his painterly pursuits, Su was also a pharmacologist, gastronome, and statesman for the Song Dynasty. Arguably one of the most famous figures of the Song Dynasty, he is also known for striking essays on topics ranging from day travel to the medieval empire’s iron industry.

Details of the scroll’s calligraphy (image courtesy Christie’s

“Wood and Rock” is an ink-on-paper scroll depicting withered tree branches alongside a warped and winding rock formation. The painting is part of an extended scroll with calligraphy by Mi Fu — a renowned contemporary of Su.

The Straits Times reports that the Japanese family that currently owns “Wood and Rock” decided to auction it with Christie’s after the auction house’s $263 million success selling Chinese artworks from the Fujita Museum in March 2017. The reigning record for an Asian work at auction is $64 million, which was the price tag for a hand scroll sold in Poly International Auction’s Beijing 2010 sale. That total includes a buyer’s premium added to the hammer price. Christie’s current estimate for the Su scroll is in excess of $51 million, not including any additional costs.

When asked about the scroll’s provenance, Christie’s told Hyperallergic that a Chinese art collector by the name of Bai Jian Fu bought two paintings by the artist back in the 1930s, one of which was “Wood and Rock.” He subsequently sold it to the Japanese art collector, Abe Fujisarom, in 1937 according to the article published in The Straits Times. That would place the exchange squarely at the beginning of the Second Sino-Japanese War, which later triggered both country’s entries into World War II.

Outlining the exchange in further detail, though, Christie’s notes that Abe purchased the scroll at auction when he outbid Chinese collector Zhang Heng by 1,000 (liang of) gold. Zhang then recorded his failed attempt in his Muyanzhai notes, a multi-volumed record of notable Chinese paintings in history. Still, this account neither contextualizes nor decontextualizes the scroll’s acquisition amidst the growing international conflict.

Full view of the “Wood and Rock” scroll (image courtesy Christie’s)

This is not the first time that Christie’s has sold artifacts of Chinese heritage under scrutiny. Back in 2009, the auction house sold two bronze heads despite Beijing’s denunciation. Writing about the strange controversy in 2015, The Economist noted:

The winning $38m bid came from an adviser to China’s national treasures fund—who refused to pay. Eventually the chairman of Kering, which owns Christie’s, bought the heads and gave them to the National Museum of China. They were repatriated in 2013—the very year Christie’s became the first Western auction house licensed to operate by itself in China.

The English-language website of the China News Service (CNS), which is sponsored by the country’s government, has previously asserted that the Japanese looted some 100,000 relics and 3 million precious manuscripts from Chiana during World War II. Other figures given by Chinese officials have drastically ranged from anywhere between 1.5 million to 10 million stolen antiquities. Such numbers, however, have not been confirmed outside of China’s state-run press and have been the subject of significant skepticism by international media outlets.

The truth is likely somewhere between these numbers. When asked in a 2011 interview about how many items in Paris’ Château de Fontainebleau collections were plundered from Beijing’s Summer Palace, the then-director of patrimony and collections at the French museum, Xavier Salmon, immediately and bluntly answered, “We think between 600 and 800,” according to a long-form article on the subject published in Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post.

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