Chinese art auction stokes concerns about fate of missing entrepreneur

A famous painting originally owned by a missing Chinese businesswoman has been sold in Beijing by a state-owned auction house for Rmb38m ($6m), raising questions about whether her assets were being forcibly liquidated.

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

In Red Roulette, Desmond Shum described Duan as “one of Zeng’s patrons” who competed against rival collector François Pinault, the billionaire French luxury magnate, for his art. Duan had originally intended to house the painting and other works by Zeng in a luxury hotel development in Beijing, according to Shum

“She did not only buy Zeng’s works,” said a person close to the artist. “She was also one of his biggest supporters.”

The artwork was sold to an unidentified buyer on Thursday night by Beijing Poly International Auction, a unit of state-owned China Poly Group, at a price far higher than the auctioneer’s initial estimated value of Rmb8m-Rmb16m ($1.3m-$2.5m). Poly described the seller as an “important institution” but declined to comment further on the provenance of the painting.

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

Duan disappeared in 2017, ostensibly as part of an investigation into Sun Zhengcai, another senior politician she had cultivated. Sun, once the youngest member of the Chinese Communist party’s 25-member politburo, was viewed as a potential successor to President Xi Jinping until he was arrested in 2017. He was sentenced to life in prison for alleged corruption a year later.

It has never been confirmed by government or party investigators that Duan was detained. She resurfaced briefly in September when she phoned Shum urging him not to publish his book about their dealings with the Wen family, Sun and other party elite.

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

Duan could not be reached for comment about 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. On Monday, however, the Beijing-based artist was ranked by the Hurun Report, which tracks the wealth of China’s richest entrepreneurs, as the world’s 10th hottest artist, based on sales of his works in 2020 totalling $39.3m.

On Wednesday, another Zeng work, “This Land So Rich in Beauty No 2”, sold for HK$40m ($5.1m), well above its initial estimated value of HK$10m-HK$20m.

It is not uncommon for prominent Chinese entrepreneurs to run into legal jeopardy and later emerge with their assets largely intact. But the risks are greater for lower-profile 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 Hong Kong hotel in 2017 and spirited him across the border with mainland China. His detention has never been confirmed by the government or party and his financial empire was dismantled by regulators last year.

Additional reporting by Emma Zhou in Beijing

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