Zao Wou Ki



Zao Wou Ki – one of the key figures of Lyrical Abstraction – is also one of China’s most cherished cultural icons. Driven by bulimic Asian demand, his auction prices have soared and in 2013, his works generated no less than 35 auction results above the million-dollar threshold.

Born into an intellectual Beijing family in 1920, ZAO Wou-Ki was a descendent of the Song Dynasty. He attended the School of Fine Arts in Hangzhou in 1935 where he studied Western and Chinese painting techniques for six years. After a first solo exhibition in Shanghai in 1947, he decided to move to Paris where he joined Emile Othon FRIESZ’s workshop at the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere and continued his studies at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Attracted to the heady atmosphere of artistic creation in Montparnasse, he decided to settle there and met Sam FRANCIS, Jean-Paul RIOPELLE, Pierre SOULAGES, Hans HARTUNG, Alberto GIACOMETTI and Maria Elena VIEIRA DA SILVA. In 1951, after discovering the work of Paul KLEE in Bern, his work underwent a radical change and he moved decisively towards abstraction.
Thereafter, he started to include stark colour confrontation with intense and vibrant light, with the objective of enhancing the purely visual experience. In his large format oil paintings and his small prints, the art of Zao Wou Ki projects “living” abstractions, with vast spaces suggesting infinite horizons. His dual Western and Chinese culture, admirably reflected in his work, gives him a special place among Contemporary artists. After gaining recognition on the European cultural scene, particularly in France, where he was honoured with many awards and prizes, his work gradually started to be collected in Asia, initially in Beijing in the early 1980s. However his auction prices really started to gain momentum in the 2000s when the Chinese art market rocketed.

The market shifts from France to Asia

In 1986, the work of Zao Wou Ki received official recognition and public admiration in France. He had already been awarded the status of Officer of the Legion of Honor by the Minister for Culture in 1984 and his was work was already being acquired by a small number of collectors. However, the market for his work remained relaxed and affordable. At that time, a Zao Wou Ki canvas could be acquired at auction for about $5,000 (a Composition, measuring 73 x 92 cm fetched FFr 35,000 on 19 June 1986 at Drouot in Paris via the company Audap-Godeau-Solanet).
Three years later, Zao Wou Ki benefited from a strong surge in Western art market prices and crossed the threshold of $100,000 for the first time (his first six-figure result was recorded on 22 November 1989 by Ader-Picard-Tajan in Paris). However the much higher million-dollar threshold was not crossed in Paris, but in Hong Kong, in 2006. France remains a major source of his works accounting for 40% of the artist’s auction transactions; but the enthusiasm of Asian collectors and their purchasing power has in recent years attracted the most important paintings to the East. Hong Kong has thus established itself over the years as the best place to sell a Zao Wou Ki work for the best price. The former British colony now represents 58% of the artist’s auction turnover with just 15% of the lots sold worldwide.

With the opening of China in the 1980s and the emergence of Chinese collectors and avant-garde artists on the cultural scene and on the art market, Zao Wou Ki’s art – considered deviant in the early 80s – started to be seen as a symbol of a successful, powerful and poetic synthesis between Chinese and European traditions. In 1983, the China’s Culture Ministry organized his first exhibition in China since his departure in 1948. It was held in conjunction with the National Museum in Beijing at his former school, which had subsequently become the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts. Some dealers and collectors were already in evidence in Asia, but the real explosion of his auction prices did not occur until 15 years later.

The real turning point occurred in the 2000s when China’s economic vitality, the enthusiasm of its collectors and investor speculation carried Zao Wou Ki up to the high end of the auction market. The artist became a safe investment sought after on both sides of the globe. His prices soared, posting a 620% increase over the decade (2003-2013) and culminating in four new records at the end of 2013. In fact Zao Wou Ki’s paintings inspired unprecedented demand during 2013, with no less than 35 million-plus results and four new records ranging from 8 to 12.4 million dollars between October and December, in Hong Kong and in Beijing.
Asia (Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China) has an enormous appetite for works by Zao Wou Ki. Its major auction houses manage to attract just over 20% of the artist’s lots into their sales, often the best works, with which they generate 80% of the artist’s auction turnover.

Zao Wou Ki’s multiples…

The bulk of Zao Wou Ki’s multiple works date from late 40s and early 50s. He first discovered lithography at the printer Desjobert in 1949 and Henri Michaux wrote eight poems to adorn eight of Zao’ lithographs. Later, his discovery of Paul Klee’s work provided additional inspiration.
This demanding format (lithography), half of which are affordable for less than $1,500 at auction, is increasingly sought after as the prices for his unique works surge.
Demand is very strong for his historical works that are both rare and subtle. The auction record in this category is held by Les Cerfs/ Hortensias, dated 1951/1952 (shortly after his discovery of Paul Klee’s prints). A set of two prints of this work fetched $77,100 on 29 May 2011 at Christie’s in Hong Kong, i.e. $38,550 per print (excluding fees).
Another example is one of his most sought-after prints, a seascape entitled Marine Seascape dated 1952. An artist’s proof of this print numbered 5/55 and measuring 38.1 x 53 cm fetched no less than $24,000 at Christie’s Hong Kong on 30 May 2010 against an estimate of just $3,000.

His multiples market is both dense (nearly 400 works offered in 2013) and international. The amateur collector will also find works in Switzerland at more advantageous prices than in Hong Kong, and for good reason: Zao Wou Ki moved to Switzerland in 2012 with his wife Françoise Marquet, a former curator at the Museum of Modern Art of the City of Paris who was working on the catalogue raisonné of his work.
Zao Wou Ki died on 9 April 2013 in Nyon after a long illness. The announcement of his death appears to have acted like an electroshock to the market and in 2013 as a whole, his works generated $135 million dollars (excluding fees), up 85% compared with the previous year.