Record Price for Chinese Painting

On October 8, 2020, a 75-minute bidding battle broke out at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong, as collectors competed to acquire Ren Renfa’s Five Drunken Princes Returning on Horseback, a late 13th / early 14th scroll from the Yuan dynasty. Over 100 bids were received, pushing the final sale price to HK$306,551,000 / US$39,555,000, well beyond the pre-high estimate of HK$120,000,000 / US$15,484,000 – a sum that establishes the scroll as the most valuable work sold at auction in Asia in 2020, and the most valuable Chinese ink painting sold by Sotheby’s Hong Kong. It was acquired by the Long Museum in Shanghai. This historic moment stands as the longest bidding war in living memory. Ren’s masterpiece was already highly prized by the time of the Ming dynasty, encapsulated in the words of literati painter Zhang Ning (1426-1496): “Black, Yellow, Red, White, and Mottled Horses. Every horse is worth a thousand tales of gold.”

Ren Renfa (1255-1327), Five Drunken Princes Returning on Horseback, ink and colour on paper, handscroll, 35.2 by 210.7 cm. © Sotheby’s

Measuring two metres across, this widely published handscroll depicts five drunken princes – one of whom later became the Tang dynasty emperor Xuan Zong (685-762) – taking a joyous horse ride accompanied by four attendants. With much of Ren Renfa’s output either held in museums or owned by private collectors, the scroll is one of the rare surviving works by the painter to come to the market.

Detail from Ren Renfa’s Five Drunken Princes Returning on Horseback. © Sotheby’s

Boasting impeccable provenance, it was kept in the imperial collection of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and catalogued in ‘Shiqu Baoji Xubian’, the second volume of the prestigious inventory of the Qing emperors’ collection of paintings and calligraphy. Following the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, the painting was transported out of the Forbidden City in 1922 by Pu Yi, the last Emperor of China, and taken to the United States, where it finally was acquired by Walter Hochstadter, a well-known and distinguished dealer in Chinese art.


Other Things You Might Be Interested in:

Have a closer look at the fantastic Ren Renfa painting in this Sotheby video, available on YouTube.

More rare and colorful scrolls are on display at the British Library, in their largest ever Buddhist collection.

Learn more about the Art of Chinese Painting in this BBC documentary, available on YouTube.