The newly relaunched Phillips Auctioneers have sold Ai Weiwei’s Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads, 2010 for £2.8m ($4.3m) at the Contemporary Art Evening Sale which took place on Thursday, 12 February. The twelve gold-plated sculptures portraying the signs of the ancient Chinese zodiac had a pre-sale estimate of £2,000,000 – £3,000,000.
“The Zodiac Heads is a seminal work by Ai Weiwei and Phillips is proud to be the first to offer a set at auction. This set of twelve heads continues Ai Weiwei’s tradition of re-interpreting cultural objects whilst questioning perceptions of authenticity and value. This gold plated domestic sized version was produced alongside the large 10ft bronze edition which have been exhibited at Somerset House, Hirsshorn Museum, Grand Army Plaze and at the Sao Paulo Biennale.” Peter Sumner, Head of Contemporary Art, London.
The zodiac heads are inspired by those which once comprised a water clock-fountain at the Old Summer Palace, the celebrated masterpiece of Chinese landscape design. Built between 1750 and 1764 by Emperor Qianlong of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911), the Summer Palace was destroyed by French and British troops in 1850 during the Second Opium War at which time the fountainheads were looted. Originally made by Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766), an Italian Jesuit who travelled to China and became a painter at the court of the emperor, the 12 fountainheads each represented a sign of the Chinese zodiac.
Working from the seven originals that remain, Ai Weiwei and his team had to creatively imagine the five heads that are missing. This forced them to draw upon other sources for ‘authentic’ Chinese portrayals of these creatures, such as the dragon, which is based on images from tapestry and print. In spite of this, the set as a whole maintains glorious aesthetic coherence, challenging the idea that the original group was a work of perfection whose loss is an irredeemable tragedy. The fake is invested with the power to revive the past, and the marriage that is made – troubled, yet oddly serene – offers a lustrous exhibition of what might be a brighter, less confused and more beautiful future.
Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads was executed as 6 large editions in bronze, almost 10 feet in height and intended for outdoor display; and 6 smaller editions plated with gold, intended for interior display and between 20 and 30 inches in height. The project was officially introduced by then-Mayor Bloomberg at the Pulitzer Fountain at Grand Army Plaza, New York, in May 2011, and has since shown at sites and museums throughout North America, Europe, and Asia.
The gold-plating of the legendary zodiac here carries a dual weight. The animals radiate the opulent inheritance of their ancient court setting; but the original heads – as well as Ai’s larger alternate version of this work – were in fact unadorned bronze.
Phillips February Contemporary Art Auctions realised a combined total of £21,144,200 / $32,350,600 / €28,544,600 and established six new artists’ records. The Evening Auction on 12 February totalled £17,689,250 / $26,887,600 / €23,880,400 selling 93% by lot and 96% by value*. The Contemporary Art Day Sale totalled £3,454,900 / $5,286,000 / €4,664,200 selling 84% by lot 88% by value.
Peter Sumner, Director, Head of Contemporary Art, London said about the Evening Sale, “We are delighted to have established artist records for seminal works by Ai Weiwei and Mark Bradford. This is our first evening auction in recent years in London to sell over 90% by lot. Our new London headquarters at Berkeley Square allow us to showcase artworks in their most favourable light, and we are welcoming increasing numbers of international collectors and enthusiasts. Together with the efforts of our global team of specialists, this has encouraged vendors to entrust us with works of the highest quality. We took bids in our Evening Sale from collectors in Europe, America, Asia and Africa, showing that we reach and attract collectors from around the world. We look forward to building on these results as we put together our next major Contemporary auctions which will take place in New York in May and London in June.”