Cancellation of Art fair Tokyo and the Japanese market

[10 Mar 2020]

As part of the effort to prevent the spread of Covid-19, the Art Tokyo association has been forced to cancel its 14th edition of Art fair Tokyo – the oldest trade fair in the country – as well as World Art Tokyo 2020. The announcement was posted unexpectedly on March 9, just ten days before the fair was due to open. After the cancellation of Art Basel Hong Kong and Art Dubaï, this is another blow for the global art market and especially for the galleries which had long been planning their trip to Japan. To prevent these cancellations from diverting our attention from Japan, Artprice provides a quick overview of the rapidly evolving Japanese market, which stands out as a model of the right balance between supply and demand.

« The Japanese market stands out as an example of balance and confidence »

During the 1980s – before Japan’s art market was developed like it is today – Japanese art collectors became known for their aggressive buying on the global secondary market. After they acquired lots of major works and masterpieces of Western Modern art at very high prices, the bottom fell out of the market and the values of the works dropped substantially over the following years. The sharp fall in art prices traumatized Japanese collectors for two decades. Today, thirty years later, the prices have recovered and the global market is almost unrecognisable in terms of depth, strength and geographic reach, and confidence has been restored. Japanese collectors are once again active in auction rooms around the world, just as they are in their domestic market… because Japan now has a vibrant art market built on healthy foundations and on a fine balance between Western art and Japanese art.

Turnover at auction copyright

Confidence and growth

In the past 5 years, Japan has moved from 11th to 7th place in the global ranking of national marketplaces by annual fine art auction turnover. The United States, China, and the UK dominate the market, followed by the European triumvirate (France – Germany – Italy) and then Japan. Although it only represents less than 1% of the global fine art turnover, the Japanese art market is exciting, diversified and expanding. Its auction turnover has doubled over the last decade. The strong performance and the vitality of its market is based not only on the maturity and confidence of the country’s domestic market, but also on the international success of Modern and Contemporary Japanese artists who are actively collected around the world.

A healthy market

In art market jargon, a work that fails to sell is a BI (bought-in). These are works that do not sell either because their estimate appears too high, or because the bidding simply fails to ignite due to a lack of competition. A low unsold rate in any given market shows that the quality of the works (the offer) and the asking price are well matched with demand at the time of the sale. In Japan, the unsold rate is much lower than the world average: 23% versus 38% for the global market as a whole. This means the Japanese art market is a champion of the ‘right balance’ between supply and demand, between the quality-price ratio of the works and the expectations of collectors.

The best results in Tokyo

Japanese collectors are enthusiastic competitors when it comes to the obsessive creations with spots and pumpkins by Yayoi Kusama, landscapes by Kaii Higashiyama, Pop paintings by Yoshitomo Nara, works by Tsuguharu Foujita and prints by the great Master Hokusai. These major signatures generate some of the best auction results in Tokyo, along with the big names of European Modern art. Pierre-Auguste Renoir, George Braque, Fernand Léger and Bernard Buffet are very popular with their works fetching between $450,000 and $1 million last year (Mainichi Auction, SBI Art Auction, iART Co). The absolute auction record for an artwork sold in the Japanese capital dates back to 2018 when a work by the world’s most sought-after artist – Pablo Picasso – fetched $10.1 million (Tête de femme en pleurs (1939) at iART Co.). The Japanese market is therefore capable of high price sales.

The international stars

At the core of the vitality of the Japanese art market are works produced over the past 150 years, i.e. Modern, Post-War and Contemporary works. These generate 94% of Japan’s fine art auction turnover. This breakdown is in stark contrast with the French market, for example, where the country’s Contemporary artists lack have little international reach. Modern French artists are known all over the world, but Contemporary French artists seldom sell well beyond their own borders…

Several Contemporary Japanese artists regularly generate sensational results in sales in Hong Kong, New York and London, the most striking examples of which are two 7-digit auction records hammered in Hong Kong: $8 million for Yayoi Kusama and $25 million for Yoshimoto Nara in April and October 2019 respectively (both at Sotheby’s).

The most expensive Japanese artist in the world

Emblematic of the success of Japanese Contemporary art at auction, Yoshimoto Nara buried his previous auction record during Sotheby’s Contemporary Art sale on October 6 last in Hong Kong. The artist’s record was revised from $4.4 million to almost $25 million for an imposing canvas depicting a typically manga-style girl supposedly holding a weapon behind her back, as indicated by the work’s title, Knife Behind Back. Thanks to this work, Nara has become the most expensive Japanese artist on the auction market. He was also the most in-demand Japanese artist on the auction market with an annual turnover of $100.4 million last year – just ahead of his elder compatriot Yayoi Kusama ($98 million) – giving him 21st place in our global ranking, just behind Claude Monet.


« Yoshitomo Nara ranks just behind Claude Monet »

The rise of Hi-Lite

Along with Takashi Murakami and Ayako Rokkaku, Nara has been included in the so-called Hi-Lite movement, a trend recently identified by Christie’s as a current of Neo-Pop aesthetics whose “connections with commercial art, cartoons and street culture have earned world renown”. Works in the Hi-Lite vein seem to appeal to a broad range of international collectors, with the notion of ‘Lite’ apparently indicating ‘light’ as in ‘easy to understand and appreciate’, as opposed to ‘heavy’.

Affiliated with this trend, the highly popular American artist Kaws joined the Top 10 best Tokyo results of 2019 when his Kimpsons Series (2001) sold for $666,250 (SBI Art Auction Co, Tokyo, 26.10.2019). The successful sale of this work by Kaws illustrates the sensitivity of Japanese collectors to the Hi-Lite trend, as well as their spirit of openness to Contemporary foreign artists, and not just Modern artists.

10 figures for Japan’s art market

$110.6 million Japan’s total fine art auction turnover in 2019

7            Japan’s place on the world art market

-10%    Japan’s fine art auction market contracted 10% between 2018 and 2019

22%     The share of prints in Japan’s market, behind painting (46%)

14,600 The number of artworks sold at auction in Japan in 2019

23%      The average unsold rate in Japan in 2019

47%      Mainichi’s market share in Japan’s 2019 auction turnover total

x 2        The growth of the Japanese art market between 2009 and 2019

$ 100.5 million   Nara’s auction turnover in 2019, the world’s top-selling Japanese artist

$8 million   The new auction record for Yayoi Kusama