700-year-old Chinese painting sells for $39.5M after epic bidding war

A 700-year-old Chinese painting sold Thursday for nearly $40 million after a marathon 75-minute bidding war — the “longest in living memory.”

The 6.6-feet scroll, titled “Five Drunken Princes Returning on Horseback” soared well above the expected $10 million to $15.5 million at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong.

“This historic moment stands as the longest bidding war in living memory,” Sotheby’s said of the unexpected 75-minute battle, that saw over 100 bids.

The masterpiece by Ren Rafa — was previously owned by several Chinese emperors — and ultimately bought by the Long Museum in Shangai for $39.55 million.

“What better home for this masterpiece of Chinese painting, than the Long Museum in Shanghai — whose collection of ancient Chinese art is among the best in the world,” said the chairman of Sotheby’s Asia, Nicolas Chow.

Sotheby’s said it was now “the most valuable work sold at auction in Asia in 2020, and the most valuable Chinese ink painting sold by Sotheby’s Hong Kong.”

While Sotheby’s appears to have vastly under-estimated the interest with its expected sales price, the auction house’s head of fine classical paintings, Steven Zuo, insisted he anticipated the reaction.

“When I first unrolled this highly important and exquisite scroll by Ren Renfa, I knew that bringing this masterpiece to auction was set to be one of the most exciting moments of my career at Sotheby’s,” he said.

“Today the market spoke,” he said.

“The extraordinary price achieved for an artwork that marries impeccable provenance with painterly brilliance, rarity with exceptional condition, is thoroughly deserved.

“Its rapturous reception at our pre-sale exhibition was a harbinger for the flurry of bids we received today, which elevated it to a final price that stands as the most valuable Chinese ink painting we have ever sold.”

The painting by Renfa, a renowned Chinese artist who lived from 1255 until 1328, had taken pride of place in numerous imperial collections, and bears the seals of several emperors.

The scroll depicts four attendants with the princes, a group including Li Longji, who had been the longest-reigning Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang Dynasty.

“This painting depicts the story of the five drunken princes after they had a very happy time, and then they got drunk and went back home,” said Sally Fong, a specialist of classical Chinese paintings at Sotheby’s.

The future emperor was “depicted as the one who can tolerate the drunkenness, to go back home together with the other drunken princes,” Fong said.

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