“Both collections were highly important with impeccable provenance, and both were very well received by collectors in Asia, achieving great results,” Kwok said. He pointed to Sanyu’s participation in the heralded Paris art scene of the first half of the 20th century as an important aspect of his posthumous popularity. “As the only modern Chinese pioneer who took part in the École de Paris since the 1920s, Sanyu’s paintings are very sought after by important collectors, and have become the engine of growth for the modern art market in Asia,” he explained.
The cross-cultural pollination of Sanyu’s success continued into the new millennium, when the Guimet Museum in Paris put on the retrospective “Sanyu: Language of the Body” in 2004, which raised the artist’s profile in Europe. At the same time, his paintings continued to appear at auctions, mostly in Hong Kong, fetching higher and higher prices. Standout results include the late-career masterwork Reclining Nude (ca. 1950s–60s), which sold at a Christie’s Hong Kong sale in 2004 for HK$7.3 million (US$943,500).
The artist’s work wouldn’t break the US$1-million mark until the following year, however, when Quatre Nus (ca. 1950–59) sold for HK$16.3 million (US$2.1 million) at Christie’s Hong Kong. This is the same Quatre Nus that sold at Sotheby’s this past July for $33.3 million—an increase of nearly 1,500 percent over 15 years. The record-holding Cinq nus has had a similarly illustrative secondary market trajectory. It was previously offered in 2011 during a Hong Kong sale held by the auction house Ravenel, where it sold for HK$128.3 million (US$16.4 million)—a record for Sanyu at the time, and still the fifth-highest auction result ever for his work. But when it reappeared at auction with Christie’s last November, just over eight years later, its value more than doubled.