Part of the interest is driven by the rarity of Mr. Zao’s works. Now 90, he has long stopped producing new pieces, and most of his best paintings were purchased decades ago by Western collectors who have been loath to part with them.HONG KONG — As Chinese collectors continue to buy back their heritage, attention has turned to Zao Wou-ki, a 20th-century master who has lived in France since fleeing China the year before Mao’s 1949 revolution.
Pascal de Sarthe, who has been dealing in Zao works for about 15 years, had to ask longtime clients for loans to cobble together 10 Zao paintings for the debut of his new gallery, de Sarthe Fine Art, in Hong Kong last month. The night before the opening, only three were left unsold.
“It’s nearly impossible for a gallery to put together a show like this,” said Mr. de Sarthe, a French-born dealer who was based in the United States before his recent move to Asia. “Demand is very strong. Once collectors have them, they keep them.” The show, “Zao Wou-ki Paintings: 1950s-1960s,” will be on view at the gallery through April 29.
More Zao works will be showcased at Sotheby’s spring sale in Hong Kong on April 4. Originally, the auction house was offering five paintings from what is referred to as Mr. Zao’s “Paul Klee period,” between 1950 and 1955, when Mr. Zao was greatly influenced by the works of the Swiss-German artist Paul Klee. The paintings have been in the hands of a private American collection for a half-century. Sotheby’s recently announced that it had increased the offering to 13, including oils, ink-and-watercolor works and a lithograph print from European and Asian collections, as well as from the Redfern Gallery in London.
“He’s the only Chinese artist whose name you will find in books about Western modern art,” said David Clarke, a professor at the University of Hong Kong’s department of fine arts. “He was one of the most significant figures in post-1945 European abstraction. Zao Wou-ki played a greater part in Western artistic modernism than any other Chinese artist.”
Mr. Zao’s combination of Western abstraction and Chinese elements, like calligraphic brush strokes, was unusual during that era. “Western artists of that time were looking to East Asian art and philosophy for inspiration, but Zao was able to draw on it more directly because of his cultural heritage,” Prof. Clarke said. “Artists in mainland China at that time could not even begin to experiment with international modernist styles, of course, but in Paris he was well-placed to do so.”
The de Sarthe show tracks Mr. Zao’s evolution through the 1950s and ’60s. Two of the earlier pieces, “Bateaux au Port” (1952) and “Corrida” (1953), are still clearly figurative, showing the sketched outlines of sailing ships and bullfighting. These are also from Mr. Zao’s “Klee period.”
Mr. de Sarthe has one of four known surviving paintings that Mr. Zao created on his 1958 trip to Hong Kong, then a British colony, marking his first return to a Chinese city since his departure in 1948. He did not set foot in mainland China until 1972. The untitled canvas is covered in thick layers of red, from bright poppy shades to deep crimson. There are rough black marks that look like the primitive ideograms that would later form Chinese characters, though they are far from actual words. In the background, one might see the vague outline of the Middle Kingdom.
Most of the pieces offered by Sotheby’s are also from the earlier part of Mr. Zao’s life.
Sylvie Chen, Sotheby’s senior director of 20th-century Chinese art, picked out “Nu et Tapis Jaune” (1953) as an example. According to Ms. Chen, who was speaking from Taipei during a traveling preview exhibition of Mr. Zao’s works there, the oil of a nude woman standing against a yellow carpet recalls a more realistic style he used when he was based in Hangzhou, before he left for France
“He revisited portraiture in his early years in Paris,” she said. “It is a very rare offering and it is the first time a work such as this has been seen at auction.” It is estimated at 2 million to 3.1 million Hong Kong dollars, or about $250,000 to $400,000.
Ms. Chen added that many of the sketches and smaller works that Mr. Zao created in China were later destroyed during the political turmoil of the 1960s, making earlier pieces scarcer still.
Other top-priced works include abstract landscapes: The shimmering, vertical “Pins Landais” (1955), inspired by the pines of the Landes region in southwest France, is estimated at 3.2 million to 4 million Hong Kong dollars. The autumn-hued “4.1.62” (1962) is the most expensive work on offer, estimated at 4 million to 6 million Hong Kong dollars.
According to Ms. Chen, Mr. Zao’s works only came onto the auction market in the 1990s, with more pieces becoming available around 2003.
“Zao’s early exhibitions were held in Europe and America, therefore the majority of his earlier works were bought by collectors there,” she said. “Asian buyers began to take an interest in the 1990s.”
“Generally speaking, collectors from Europe, America and Asia are more interested in his pre-1970 work, whereas newly emerging collectors from China seem more interested in the post-1970 period,” Ms. Chen said.
Last year, all 17 of the Zao works offered during Christie’s spring sales surpassed the auction house’s estimates, fetching a total of 323.3 million Hong Kong dollars.
The de Sarthe gallery joins a parade of new foreign-run galleries in Hong Kong’s Central district that specialize in blue-chip modern and contemporary artists. In the last year and a half, Ben Brown of London, Larry Gagosian of New York and Edouard Malingue of Paris have opened galleries. But de Sarthe is the first to open with a significant show by an Asian artist.
Mr. de Sarthe, whose next show will feature the glossy pop photography of David LaChapelle, said he did not distinguish between Western and Eastern artists. His goal, he said, was to bring top-end works that would otherwise be hard to find in Hong Kong.
“He was never prolific,” Mr. de Sarthe said of Mr. Zao. “There may be more Picassos in the market than Zaos.”