Whitney Duan was one of China's richest women, until she vanished in 2017. Now the Zeng Fanzhi painting she once owned is being auctioned in Beijing

The real-estate tycoon, a key patron of Zeng, has not been seen since she was "disappeared"—the painting, Prayer, is now described by Poly auctions as "entrusted by an important institution"

Whitney Duan, before she disappeared in 2017

Whitney Duan, before she disappeared in 2017

Nine paintings by the Chinese artist Zeng Fanzhi are due to be auctioned by the state-owned Poly Beijing on 2 December as part of its Modern and contemporary art evening sale. The cover lot is Prayer (2012), an amalgamation of Albrecht Durer and Gerhard Richter, showing work-worn hands lit by three candles. The painting, first exhibited at Gagosian in London in 2012, is estimated at CNY8m-16m ($1.2m-$2.4m) and it is being sold as “entrusted by an important institution” with no further information.

The last-known owner of the painting is someone who was “disappeared” in China in September 2017. Since that day, none of her colleagues, her former husband or even her parents know where she is, nor even if she is still alive. Her name is not cited in Poly’s auction details, and there is no evidence to suggest that the auction house knew she once owned the painting.

Zeng Fanzhi's Prayer (2012)

The person in question, Weihong “Whitney” Duan, who was 50 when she was whisked away from her home, was once one of China’s richest women, who rose from modest beginnings to become a real-estate tycoon. She skilfully manipulated guanxi —contacts—to leverage billion-dollar deals and crucially to cosy up to China’s communist party elite, notably becoming close to the wife of the prime minister Wen Jiabao.

Duan’s former husband, Desmond Shum, recounts in his book Red Roulette (2021) how Duan “began hobnobbing with painters such as Zeng Fanzhi”, and became one of his patrons, writing the introduction to a catalogue of one of his exhibitions. Shum writes that she also competed against luxury goods magnate François Pinault for Zeng’s works, and that Pinault had an assistant shadowing Zeng and buying pictures even before he had completed them. An illustration in the book shows Zeng in front of two works, one of which is Prayer and which Duan bought for around $5m, according to Shum. Poly auction uses the same illustration in its catalogue. The other painting is The Wise (2012), which forms a diptych with the former and was also exhibited at Gagosian in London in 2012. It is now in the same auction at Poly, at the same estimate and with the same note—“entrusted by an important institution.” Another four works, all by Zeng, bear the same inscription in the catalogue.

At the height of her success in 2010, Duan had started planning a museum in one of her real estate developments, based on a proposal by the British architect Norman Foster, with office space, residential units and a Bulgari hotel. Zeng was offered space to put a studio on the top floor of the museum and Tadao Ando was signed up to design it.

Duan and her ex-husband, Desmond Shum, who has just released a book about her disappearance

But things turned sour in 2012 when the New York Times reported on the immense wealth accumulated by the Wen family, and included an image of Duan as part of the family’s inner circle. Incoming party leader Xi Jinping launched a ruthless anti-corruption campaign despite he himself being named by Bloomberg as having also accumulated a vast fortune.

At first Duan was not targeted, but then she began working with Sun Zhengcai—a potential rival to Xi for the leadership of the party. In 2017, Sun was expelled from the party and sent to prison for “bribery” and Duan was “disappeared”. Since then, nothing has been heard from her.

She is far from the only Chinese billionaire to vanish: famously, Jack Ma, the founder of the e-commerce site Alibaba is apparently being “re-educated” after a long absence. And just recently the tennis star Peng Shuai disappeared after alleging sexual abuse by high-level official, only to reappear but in curious and possibly constrained videos.

Poly did not respond to a request for comment.