Do you have a Masterpiece of Modern Chinese Ink Painting in your Attic?

Lazarus Halstead, Head of Asian Art discusses the world of Modern Chinese Art with a guide to five 20th century masters of Chinese ink paintings and provides useful tips to help identify their work and market value.


Popularity of 20th century Fine Chinese painting

Much of the success of Chiswick Auctions biannual Fine Chinese Paintings auctions stems from the sale of works painted during the 20th century. Just as Western Art is defined by the likes of Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and Vincent van Gogh, so too Chinese Art has its modernisers, who transformed the traditional and academic forms of the 19th century by introducing new ideas and personalised expression. Global annual sales continue to be buoyant for certain top Chinese artists.

Here is a selection of five works by 20th century Chinese artists, recently sold by Chiswick Auctions:

Qi Baishi (1864 – 1957) was famous for painting small details of nature including still life scenes, shrimps playing in a pond or jumping groups of frogs. He was also known as a master calligrapher. His work is characterised by strong and expressive brushwork and carved seals which were impressed on his works in a red seal paste. Qi’s humble beginnings meant his background was consistent with Communist ideals, therefore he was eligible to be promoted as one of China’s foremost artists by the State throughout the second half of the 20th century. His mature style developed after he was 60 years old, and this piece is typical of his later period.

14 November 2016. Lot 84: QI BAISHI (1864 – 1957), Balsam and Butterflies, Hanging scroll. Achieved £48,800 at Chiswick Auctions.


Huang Binhong (1865 – 1955) was a landscape painter, art historian and connoisseur of paintings born in Jinhua. He worked within traditional forms of painting but introduce modern and innovative techniques to his work. The landscape below encapsulates his iconic brushwork.

13 November 2017. Lot 50. HUANG BINHONG (1865 – 1955), Landscape, Hanging scroll. Achieved £51,250 at Chiswick Auctions.


Zhang Daqian (1899 – 1983) was a prolific and great artist who painted in a range of styles from traditional landscape painting through to abstract expressionism. He studied the Dunhuang cave paintings in China during his early years, but emigrated to Brazil in 1949, and then moved to Taiwan in 1978. Zhang was a great showman and famously met with Picasso in 1956. He also continues to cause controversy as he was a great forger and his works continues to populate museums and puzzle museum curators around the world. In comparison to his oeuvre the painting below is more modest, but it nevertheless encapsulates something of the great artist’s style and skill.

12 November 2018. Lot 48: ZHANG DAQIAN (1899 – 1983), Bamboo, Hanging scroll. Achieved £20,625 at Chiswick Auctions.

Pu Ru (1896 – 1963) also known as Pu Xinyu’s, was a painter and calligrapher of the 20th century. His work could be summarised as a poignant swan song to a bygone era. He was a cousin to Puyi, the final ruler of the Qing dynasty and the last Emperor of China and was the founder of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. This picture is very typical of his traditional approach to landscape painting.

13 November 2017. Lot 15. PU RU (1896 – 1963), Landscape, Hanging scroll. Achieved £20,000 Chiswick Auctions.

Huang Zhou (1925 – 1997) was from a later generation than the other artists mentioned and perhaps as a result, his work shows more of the hallmarks of Soviet Realism which had an influence on Chinese Art during the 1950s. He is most famous for his depiction of donkeys and so this piece is typical of his work.

5 May 2015. Lot 229: HUANG ZHOU (1925 – 1997), Donkeys, Hanging scroll. Achieved £18,000 at Chiswick Auctions.

When beginning to assess your works there are a few things to consider

Is it a print?

Surprisingly many of the works claiming to be originals are actually prints. During the 1960s and 1970s a company called Rong Bao Zhai produced woodblock prints of works by famous artists. The most commonly reproduced artist was Qi Baishi. The woodblock printing technology is regarded as a high point in the history of the medium in China. Complete volumes of woodblocks from this time can fetch around 1,000 GBP, however, individual leaves have an insignificant value.

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24 May 2018. Lot 240: QI BAISHI HUA. Beijing: Rongbao Zhai, volume of 22 woodcuts dated 1952, image of cover and inside page. Achieved £1,062.50.

Does the piece strike you as an important work of art?

China has a tradition of copying. Artists also learn by copying the works of the masters and whilst some copies are very good, others vary widely from the style of the original artist. The great masters of the 20th century spent decades perfecting their technique and so to identify if your piece looks like it came directly from the hand of a great artist, you should consider these three things. The strokes of the paintbrush, the overall condition and the placement of different layers of ink.

Did you pay the correct price?

If you purchased a piece recently on the open market at a significantly reduced price, the chances are that it is not authentic. Be careful of the attributions made in Western auction houses as they may be guess work, rather than an educated judgement. The works of the above artists will almost always attract five-figure sums, so if a purchase seems too good to be true, it probably is. If you have a piece you are wishing to sell at auction contact Chiswick Auctions for a complimentary valuation.

What was the artwork’s provenance?

Establishing the journey that an artwork has gone on is an important means of assessing its authenticity. Whilst it is often not possible to establish a direct route between the artist and current owner, it helps to do as much detective work as possible, in a market where provenance is a key consideration for buyers.

What information does the inscription hold?

The next stage is to interrogate the inscriptions and seals (this might require a bit of help if you don’t read Chinese). The red seals on the work will typically either belong to the artist or subsequent collectors of the work. Inscriptions may typically include the artist’s signature, the date, the place of creation and possibly a dedication if the work was presented by the artist as a gift. All these can be used to build up a coherent picture of the painting.

The next sale, Fine Chinese Paintings will be held on 11 November at 9am. Please contact Lazarus on to discuss a consignment for future sales.