How Andy Warhol Gave a Chinese Tycoon His 15 Minutes of Fame

BY LEE HAN SHIH
Mar 19, 2009
*Special to asia!

It was the famous American artist who said, “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.” Forty years later he would be the one to give a Chinese billionaire his quarter of an hour.

 

Gordon Wu built China’s first superhighway in the 1980s. But it took him another 20 years to become recognised internationally—not as a master builder, but as the man who paid a ridiculously high price for a lump of smelly fungus.

Joseph Lau is arguably Hong Kong’s most feared corporate raider. He is a billionaire, owns three private planes and dates beautiful actresses. His face has been plastered all over the gossip pages in Hong Kong and China, but was little known outside of North Asia. No longer — Lau is now the latest darling on the international auction circuit as the man who paid a ridiculously high price for a work by a dead artist of a dead head of state.

The way Wu and Lau gained their 10 minutes of fame — the former paid HK$1.3 million (US$167,180) for a 1.51 kg of white truffles, the latter HK$131 million for a portrait of the late Chinese leader Mao Zedong by Andy Warhol — has aroused the interest of the territory’s many alpha-male tycoons.

It has long been a serious contest among the rich and the super rich to outdo one another in having the biggest and the best, from yachts to private planes, race horses, trophy wives, mistresses, and girlfriends. Now a new element has been added to the game.

Years after Christie’s and Sotheby’s started holding regular auctions in Hong Kong, the tycoons suddenly realised they could get their faces into international magazines simply by forking out an outrageous sum for just about anything.

Wu, who never minces his word, has loudly proclaimed that “I don’t like truffles” — not a surprising revelation since appreciation of the Italian fungus with its powerful scent and its supposed aphrodisiac value is an acquired taste. Truffles grow naturally underground among the roots of oak and poplar trees in the Piedmont area. They are hunted by men aided by specially trained dogs, mostly in the night to avoid giving away their choice spots. They cannot be cultivated — hence the high price.

Despite his apathy towards truffles, Wu was happy. He had made international news for paying a record price for a gourmet item. It was icing on the cake that he outbid French actor Gerard Depardieu, a regular at truffle auctions. And he also made his wife Ivy, who enjoys social events, famous. In all, it was a heady trip for the chairman of Hopewell Holdings, who said he was “overjoyed” at “beating French and Italian bidders to secure the most expensive truffle in history.” He also added, perhaps as an afterthought, that “price is no consideration since I am buying it for charity.”

Wu invited 40 friends to share the bounty in a sumptuous meal to raise money for Mother's Choice, which provides care for women facing pregnancy crises. Whether the money raised was more than what he paid for the truffle is not known. What is known is that every of the five dishes featured the giant truffle. One had it paired with lobster and parma ham, and another with creamy scrambled egg. The dessert was truffle with ice cream on hazelnut meringue and vanilla foam. And each guest walked away with a small piece of the truffle wrapped in silver foil. In total each guest consumed more than HK$30,000 worth of food.

While Wu was embarking on an ego trip, Lau, head of the giant property and retail concern China Estates, is a known collector of art, beautiful women, cars and planes. This gives him the cachet to make a case for spending one-100th of his fortune (he is estimated to be worth HK$13 billion) for a Warhol, the highest price ever paid for a work of the celebrated pop artist.

Warhol, born Andrew Warhola (1928 – 1987) was a second-generation Slovak émigré and son of a construction worker in Pittsburgh. An artist, avant-garde filmmaker, music producer and actor, he was highly popular in the American art scene in the 1950s to 1980s and was one of the founders of the Pop Art movement.

Warhol died in 1987, aged 58. A hoarder by nature, Warhol amassed so many possessions that it took Sotheby’s nine days to auction his estate. The gross total value of the auction came up to US$20 million.

Nineteen years later, his Mao Zedong piece, a silk-screen painting showing Mao in a dark blue jacket against a light blue background, which is considered one of Warhol's best works from the 1970s, fetched US$17.4 million at a Christie’s auction in New York. Has Warhol’s work appreciated so much in the two decades after his death, or did Joseph Lau vastly overpay?


mao zedong- andy warhol

No 4 from Mao Tse-Tung 1972

A series of ten colour screenprints impression, from the Collection of the National Gallery of Australia


It is, of course, a matter of opinion. Lau was said to be happy to have “saved some money” as he was prepared to go up to HK$150 million for the painting. An art expert in Hong Kong also applauded his investment acumen, declaring that Lau was “sitting on a 20% to 30% paper profit given the incredible demand for art in Hong Kong and China.” And the expert might be right.

The tycoons in China and Hong Kong are flush with money and hungry for recognition. The next art auction — or truffle auction or auction for anything else — could see the setting of more record prices.

 

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lee han shihLee Han Shih is the founder, publisher and editor of asia! Magazine.

 

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