Hokusai featured in New York

[05 Mar 2024]

A year after Christie’s hammered a record $2.75 million for a print of Hukosai’s Great Wave off Kanagawa, the same auctioneer is putting Hokusai in the spotlight of its spring sales with an exceptional set of Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji to be sold on 19 March during Asia Week in New York.

HOKUSAI’s Great Wave off Kanagawa is one of the world’s most famous masterpieces, and in that sense it belongs to the same category as works like Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring. When Hokusai produced the famous wood-cut engraving its price was set at around $4 (in today’s money), the equivalent of the price of two bowls of noodles according to the established formula. Japanese printmaking, as practiced by Hokusai and his workshop, was then a popular art, created to be disseminated as widely as possible.

“As Hokusai’ prints began appearing in Europe and in the United States in large numbers in the mid-19th century, they influenced artists such as Vincent van Gogh, Claude Monet, Edgar Degas, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec in the development of movements like Impressionism.” (Christie’s)

Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), Great Wave (Part of a complete set of Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji). Estimate: $3,000,000-5,000,000. Offered on 19 March at Christie’s in New York

It is impossible to know the exact number of impressions made before the wood blocks were re-engraved, but some specialists have estimated that around 8,000 prints of Great Wave may have been produced. However, of those, very few have survived, and those that have are in very different conditions and have subtle color nuances. The prices of Hokusai prints therefore vary considerably depending on when they were printed, their intrinsic qualities and their condition.

Finding a top-quality proof of Great Wave is, therefore, not an easy task, despite the original quantity produced. The one sold at the record price of $2.75 million at a Christie’s sale during New York’s spring Asia Art Week in 2023 was described by Christie’s as one of the 20 best examples of the work. It is of course even more difficult to acquire all 36 Views of Mount Fuji, and it can take several years or even decades. So Christie’s upcoming offering on 19 March 2024 is indeed a major art market event.

Sunshu Ejiri (Ejiri in Suruga Province). Part of a complete set of Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji

An exceptional collection

In fact, the news is so big that Christie’s has been announcing this lot since last October and has since organized a global road show to promote it. The set was seen in its entirety at Christie’s in Tokyo, then in Hong Kong in November, as well as in Paris in December.

The series actually includes 46 woodblock prints, thirty-six views of Mount Fuji plus ten additional ones (to respond to the immediate success of the series), created by Katsushika Hokusai between 1830 and 1833. A single collector patiently collected the prints and reconstituted the whole thing. Although the prints are not of the same quality, some being later than others, the collection is impressive in its own right and represents an opportunity that has not come to the auction market in two decades.

The last complete set of 46 plates submitted for auction came from the collection of Huguette Berès, a French gallery owner and art dealer who died in 1999 and who was keen to bring together prints that were still old and in as perfect a condition as possible. When the Bérés Collection (2002) was sold, the Views of Mount Fuji fetched $1.48 million – the absolute record for Hokusai at the time – although the prices of Japanese prints had dropped considerably. Today Hukosai’s work is much more popular than 20 years ago, and last year he ranked among the 200 most successful artists on the global art market. And, with a new record last year, the full set of Hokusai’s famous Views of Mount Fuji will almost certainly fetch a much higher price this March and, perhaps, set a new world record at several millions of dollars.

In 2002: Fugaku Sanjurokkei, Views of Mount Fuji (c.1830-1835)

46 prints from the Huguette Berès Collection

Lot sold for $1.48 million at Sotheby’s Paris on 27 November 2002

An absolute record at the time

In 2024 : : 36 vues du Mont Fuji (c.1830-1835)

Estimate: $3,000,000-5,000,000.

Offered in Japanese and Korean Art on 19 March at Christie’s in New York

Gaifu kaisei (Fine wind, clear weather). Part of a complete set of Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji

Hokusai’s auction record (in $ millions) (copyright Artprice.com)