Well-Travelled Painting Makes China its Home

14th November 2019

A treasured painting that travelled the world in its owner’s briefcase has sold at auction for almost £30,000 after his family made the difficult decision to sell.

The eight inch sketch of a Chinese scholar standing beside bamboo was a gift from the artist, Zhang Daqian, to George Aveline Valentine Stephens who was then working for Pan American Airlines. Daqian, whose prolific output has led him to be known as the Chinese Picasso, had inscribed the painting “To a good friend Mr Stephens” and dated it for 30th January 1950. The gift was made at an exhibition of Daqian’s works in New Delhi in January 1950 and was accompanied by a catalogue of the exhibition, which Mr Stephens also retained.

The painting clearly meant a lot to Mr Stephens from the start as he put a note with it that reads “Just a little gift from the world’s [sic} famous Chinese artist Professor Chang Dai Chien”. Valentine Stephens left Pan Am in the 1950s to go and work as marketing executive for the International Marine Oil Company Ltd (later Shell). During his time with the company he travelled extensively and the painting always accompanied him, safely secreted inside his briefcase.

Zhang Daqian hit English auction headlines earlier this year when Woolley and Wallis broke the artist’s British auction record with a scroll painting of Chao Mountain that sold for £2.64m. It meant that Freya Yuan-Richards, head of Chinese Paintings, had a head-start in providing Mr Stephens’ family with a valuation when they brought the painting in to sell.

“The watercolour is fairly small and a brief sketch, depicting the poet Li Bai beneath bamboo, symbolising his humility, integrity and fidelity,” said Yuan-Richards. “The dedication to Mr Stephens probably indicates that the artist believed he had these qualities and wanted to show his appreciation by gifting him the painting.”

The sketch was included in the Fine Chinese Paintings and Works of Art sale on 12th November, where a private collector from mainland China secured it on the telephone for £28,750 including buyer’s premium, chasing it well above its £2,000 starting price.

“I have spoken to our vendor, who is over the moon with the result of the painting,” said Yuan-Richards. “Selling the artwork was quite a wrench and a very emotional process for them, but it helps to know that it is once again going on its travels and returning to China. Whilst Daqian’s works are very collectable at the moment, this sketch is also a wonderful reminder of a very different time in the world of business where working relationships were carefully cultivated and treasured over a long period of time.”

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