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A Painting by China's "First Lady of Painting" Pan Yu-liang: Breaking the One Million Dollar Barrier
Odile Chen / Ravenel Art & Investment 15 / 2006-04-01

Over the last two years, Western paintings by Chinese artists have enjoyed another boom on auction markets. Often underestimated, they have repeatedly surprised investors and established a niche for themselves in the competitive international market. And after New York, London and Paris, the Greater China art market has become perfectly capable of producing million dollar sales records. In 2005 alone, there were eight Chinese artists who broke through the one million US dollar (approx. NT$ 33 million) barrier-and in some cases the sold price for a single piece even exceeded two million dollars: Xu Beihong (US$ 2,726,416), Zao Wou-ki (US$ 2,318,885), Sanyu (US$ 2,109,906), Liao Chi-chun (US$ 1,383,105), Chen Yanning (US$ 1,253,049), Pan Yu-liang (US$ 1,243,245), Wu Guanzhong (US$ 1,185,468), and Chen Yifei (US$ 1,049,592). (cf. Contemporary Art News, Feb 2006 Issue, Annual Survey of Top Ten Western Style Chinese Painters .29) The only female artist on this list is Pan Yu-liang.


Yu-liang, whose real name was Chen Xiuqing, was born on June 14, 1895 in Yangzhou, Jiangsu Province. She was orphaned when still a small child, sold to a brothel by her uncle (who changed her name to Zhang) and raised to become a prostitute. In 1913, she caught the attention of a wealthy official named Pan Zanhua who bought her freedom and married her as a second wife (concubine). In gratitude for her husband¡¯s kindness, she adopted his family name. She also began to study painting at the Shanghai Art School. Since that time, she called herself Pan Yu-liang. It is worth noting that many facts of Pan's early life are in truth unknown or difficult to corroborate, since reliable records from that time are not available. Novels, films and drama versions of her life have inevitably filled the missing gaps in our knowledge with conjectures and exaggerations. Some have even called Pan a ¡®Chinese van Gogh¡¯. However that may be, there can be no doubt that today Pan Yu-liang is the best-known female artist in Chinese history.


In the early years of the Chinese Republic, Pan Yu-liang became the first female artist to travel to Paris and Rome for advanced studies and make a name for herself in international art circles. Pan excelled at various modes of artistic expression, including oil painting, ink-and-wash, print, sketch and sculpture, and her works were repeatedly shown in French galleries and salons, as well as numerous exhibitions in other European countries and the United States. She harvested awards from countries such as France, Belgium and Italy, and when a French film company decided in 1954 to produce a long documentary on a number of artists based in the Montparnasse district of Paris, Pan Yu-liang was the only Asian artist to be included in that film (which focused on her creative work). A French art publication once gave the following appraisal: The Museum of Modern Art, the Mus¨¦e Cernuschi and the Mus¨¦e d¡¯Art Moderne de la ville de Paris are all extremely proud to feature some of Pan Yu-liang' best work in their collections.


Biographic sketches of Pan Yu-liang are included in the Dictionnaire des peintres, sculpteurs, dessinateurs et graveurs and the Dictionnaire de la peinture Larousse. In terms of popular and critical success, Pan is by no means inferior to her many male painter colleagues from China who also studied and worked in France.


Originally, only colleagues and art aficionados were aware of Pan Yu-liang and her arts, but then a number of popular works introduced her to a broader public, including Ms Shi Nan¡¯s novel Soul of a Painter, the movie with same name (with Gong Li in the starring role), and a TV series, also under the same title, directed by Li Jiaxin (Michelle Lee) and Stanley Kwan Kam-Pang. Today, Pan is known and renowned among most Chinese as the successful female artist with a hard lot early in life-a hard lot that eventually added much colour and interest to her art and legend. Rumour has it that the collector who spent more than one million US dollars on Pan¡¯s work last year had also seen the movie of Soul of a Painter, and it is quite likely that this experience inspired him and strengthened his resolve to make a high bid. In the first half of this year, Taipei¡¯s National Museum of History and Taichung¡¯s National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts both held retrospectives of Pan Yu-liang¡¯s work. The exhibitions showed 120 pieces from her oeuvre and attracted large crowds of visitors, sparking a strong interest for Pan Yu-liang among Taiwan¡¯s general public. Everything related to the female artist has become so fashionable that one entrepreneur, scenting a business opportunity, got in touch with the Anhui Province Museum in China and obtained the right to distribute Pan Yu-liang peripheral products (such as posters, gifts) in Taiwan.


Five Years Ago, Sold for NT$ 8.3 Million: Today the Hammer Drops at 8.4 Million - Hong Kong Dollars!


Last autumn, a self-portrait in oil by Pan Yu-liang, completed in 1949, was sold at an auction for HK$ 9.64 million (approx. NT$ 41.45 million)-worldwide the highest auction price ever achieved by a work of the artist, also propelling Pan into the ¡®one million US dollars¡¯ category of painters. Originally, the self-portrait had been appraised at between HK$ 3 to 3.5 million.


Previously, the highest price record for a painting by Pan Yu-liang had been at HK$ 2,134,400 (approx. NT$ 9,177,920), set in October 2004 by her painting Bathers. The client and owner who put the Artist¡¯s Self-Portrait up for sale at auction was a collector with an eye for promising investments who specializes in buying and reselling items. Five years ago, he acquired the painting from the Unique Art Auction House (now no longer in business) for NT$ 8.4 million (incl. buyer¡¯s commission), and five years later he has resold it for HK$ 8.4 million (HK$ 9.64 million if you add the commission)-within half a decade, the value of the lot had quadrupled, and the owner made a very handsome profit of 300%, or more than 20 million NT dollars. Pan Yu-liang's paintings have been a fixed feature on Taiwan's art market for more than ten years. Both the Artist's Self-Portrait sold at auction in Hong Kong last autumn and the painting Nude featured in the Ravenel Spring Auction 2006 were previously listed in the 1992 Home Gallery and Home Collection catalogues. Both paintings were also part of the Sanyu and Pan Yu-liang'exhibition held at Taipei's National Museum of History in 1995. They are among the very few outstanding pieces by Pan Yu-liang that are currently in circulation.


Most of Pan's Extant Works Now Part of Museum Collections Less Than Fifty Oil Paintings Estimated to Be Circulating on the Art Market


Pan Yu-liang was a very prolific artist. When she died of an illness in 1977, she left us with more than 4,000 of her works. As far as we know, at the intervention of the Chinese government these works were shipped to China after her death and placed in various collections there, including those of the National Art Museum of China (18 pieces, but according to the museum¡¯s website, only 17 pieces are actually featured in the current collection) and the Central Academy of Fine Arts (25 pieces), while the remaining works were given to the Anhui Museum in Hefei. According to official data from the Anhui Museum, they have more than 4,000 pieces by Pan Yu-liang in their collection, the vast majority of which were created between 1930 and 1970, including 361 oil paintings, 351 ink and color, 3,982 sketches and a small number of prints and sculptures. The family of Pan Yu-liang inherited a total of 21 pieces, and the Shanghai Art Museum also has one painting by Pan in its collection (a still life titled Huaguo Flowers and Fruit. The Taipei Fine Arts Museum owns three of Pan¡¯s works, one oil portrait and two coloured-ink paintings.


Some twenty years after most of Pan's art works had been returned to China, her family became dissatisfied with the Chinese government¡¯s handling of the artist's heritage, and launched a lawsuit, which continues today, to try and have the works restored to their possession. Some of Pan's works are currently in foreign collections: the government of Paris bought 16 of her oil paintings and sculptures, the French Ministry of Education is in possession of three of her works, the French Muse National de l¡¯Education owns one gouache painting, and the collection at the Muse Cernuschi features five pieces by Pan. Since the majority of Pan Yu-liang¡¯s oeuvre is now held by museum collections, chances of coming across her works at auctions are rather small. More than ten years ago, galleries in Taipei first began to import paintings by Pan Yu-liang, and afterwards auction houses followed suit importing the occasional lot. According to the estimates of market insiders, the total number of oil paintings by Pan Yu-liang currently in circulation does not exceed 50.


Rampant Forgery As Prices Soar Resale Lots Resulting from Substantial Demand and Limited Supply


Seeing that only very few paintings by Pan Yu-liang are in free circulation and there is considerable demand for her work on the art market, some shady businesses have begun to specialize in forgeries of her work, focussing mostly on oil paintings. Around the middle 1990s the first Pan Yu-liang imitations began to appear on the market, with motif and composition often copied from reproductions in museum catalogues, but most of them were shoddily executed and crudely vulgar (still, it was sometimes enough to catch the eye of less perceptive collectors who would just feel that they had ¡®seen this somewhere before).


Imitations of Pan Yu-liang's work are still seen quite frequently today, particularly in Taiwan, Shanghai and Beijing. Some of the forgers even go so far as to have their fake paintings reproduced in books, catalogues or other such publications to enhance their credibility. In the end, a discerning collector will not fall for these antics, since an imitation, even one that is relatively well done, can never catch the true character and spirit of the original artist. In come cases, the counterfeiters simply put different signatures on similar or even identical paintings-Guan Liang, Pan Yu-liang or Xu Beihong, for example-that were all produced by the same forgery artists. While unscrupulous businessmen may find printers or publishers to endorse their imitations, this still does not remove the stain of forgery or elevate the phoney pictures to artistic status.


With opportunities for encountering an authentic Pan Yu-liang so rare, it is no surprise that a bidding war usually ensues when the right lot, such as one of her widely acknowledged masterpieces, appears on the market. This was the case with the Artist's Self-Portrait that created such a stir at last year's autumn auction in Hong Kong. It should also be noted that many of Pan Yu-liang's paintings appearing at auctions are resale lots'since, as I have mentioned, there are only so many pieces to go around. A considerable number of the 49 lots (described in the attached list) that were sold at auction between 1999 and 2005 were in fact resold items.


Market Share for Oil Paintings Rises to 80.2%


The all-time record for a Pan Yu-liang sold at auction, set in 2005 by the Artist's Self-Portrait (over 40 million NT dollars), also meant a very significant increase in that year's total sales, which reached an impressive NT$ 60,947,735, almost equalling the total transaction volume on the Pan Yu-liang market for the years from 1999 to 2004.


Between 1999 and 2006, the market share of oil paintings was at 80.2%, followed by ink-and-wash/gouache (18.6%) and prints (1.2%), marking a significant increase in the oil painting bracket. In my article ¡®Observations of the Auction Market: Overseas Chinese Art Sets New Records¡¯, published in the seventh issue of Art & Investment, I had previously analysed the performance of Pan Yu-liang paintings at auctions between 1999 and 2003: back then, the share of oil paintings in the total market had only registered at 60.1%.


Looking at the geographical segmentation of the market, we find that over the past six years Hong Kong and Taiwan saw the largest turnover for Pan Yu-liang art works, closely followed by Beijing and Shanghai. In London, prints of Pan Yu-liang's Woman and Cat appeared twice on the auction market, one of them fetching the extraordinary high price of ¡ê 8,400 (approx. NT$ 480,000). In Beijing, the same print is valued at between NT$ 150,000 to 180,000. Three years ago in the Taiwan market, prints by Pan Yu-liang practically never exceeded the 100 thousand NT dollar benchmark.


The market for Pan Yu-liang's art is not blessed with the same comparatively rich supply of works as that for her contemporaries, such as Sanyu or Xu Beihong. Some market potential may still lie in those of Pan's works that remain in Europe, but one should not expect too much there. All the shortness of supply has done so far is to create ample opportunities for forgers trying to infiltrate the market with their imitations. The Pan family's lawsuit, aimed at having the late artist's works returned to their possession, is highly unlikely to succeed, so this potentially largest source of paintings remains off-limit. It is similarly improbable that any museums are going to sell pieces from their Pan Yu-liang collections in the foreseeable future. Therefore, one can only give this advice to collectors: be constantly on the lookout for those rare occasions when an authentic Pan Yu-liang surfaces on the art market. Seizing those opportunities is not easy, but most certainly worth a shot.