Chinese art auction raises concerns about missing businessman’s fate

A famous painting originally owned by a missing Chinese businesswoman has been sold by a state auction house in Beijing for Rmb38 million ($6 million), raising questions about whether Will her assets be forcibly liquidated?

Duan Weihong, a businessman also known as Whitney who is close to the family of former premier Wen Jiabao, originally paid $5 million for “Prayer,” a 2012 oil painting by the Chinese artist. Zeng Fanzhi, according to a book recently published by her ex. husband.

In Red Roulette, Desmond Shum describes Duan as “one of Zeng’s patrons” who competed with the rival collector François Pinault, billionaire French luxury magnate, because of his art. Duan originally planned to store Zeng’s painting and other works in a luxury hotel development in Beijing, according to Shum.

A person close to the artist said: “She doesn’t just buy Zeng’s works. “She’s also been one of his biggest supporters.”

The artwork was sold to an unspecified buyer on Thursday night by Beijing Poly International Auction, a unit of the state-owned China Poly Group, for much more than its estimated value. Initial estimate of the auction house is Rmb8m-Rmb16m (1.3 million – 2.5 million USD). Poly described the seller as an “important institution” but declined to comment further on the origin of the painting.

Shum, who lives in the UK, said he was “deeply sorry” to learn that “Prayer” was up for sale. “It’s a great picture,” he added.

Duan disappeared in 2017, apparently as part of an investigation into Sun Zhengcai, another high-ranking politician she once idolized. Sun, once the youngest member of the 25-member politburo of the Communist Party of China, was seen as a potential successor to President Xi Jinping until he arrested in 2017. He was sentenced to life in prison for alleged corruption a year later.

Government or party investigators have never confirmed that Duan is in custody. She emerged briefly in September when she phoned Shum urging him not to publish her book about their dealings with the Wen family, Sun and other party elites.

Shum said at the time that he believed Duan was forced to make the call and was not free.

Duan could not be reached for comment on the sale of the painting, which was first reported by The Art newspaper. Zeng did not respond to a request for comment.

Demand for Zeng’s works has cooled over the past decade. However, on Monday, the Beijing-born artist was ranked as the top in the world by the Hurun Report, which tracks the wealth of China’s richest businessmen. 10th Hottest Artist, based on total sales of his works in 2020 of $39.3 million.

On Wednesdays, another Zeng job, “This land rich in beauty number 2”, which sold for HK$40 million ($5.1 million), much higher than the original estimate of HK$10 million-20 million.

It’s not uncommon for prominent Chinese businessmen to be in legal jeopardy and then emerge with their fortunes largely intact. But the risk is even greater for low-level figures with close business ties to elite party families.

Xiao Jianhua, a financier, has not been seen since Chinese police kidnapped him at a luxury hotel in Hong Kong in 2017 and took him across the border with mainland China. His detention has never been confirmed by the government or party and his financial empire is dismantling by regulators last year.

Additional reporting by Emma Zhou in Beijing

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