Japan 2020: a healthy and dynamic art market

[16 Feb 2021]

Neighbouring a Chinese market as powerful as that of the United States in terms of auction turnover, Japan generates only 2% of Asia’s total fine art auction revenue. This is of course a relatively small share at the global level, but in national terms its the eighth largest in the world after Italy and Switzerland – with more than $95 million worth of art sold through Japanese auction operators last year.

In times of crisis, the affordability and high level of liquidity of Japan’s art market seems to offer better protection than other markets. Not dependent on the ultra high-end market with its 7 and 8-digit results, it has resisted the negative consequences of the pandemic remarkably well: its annual turnover was down just -14% in 2020 whereas the totals of certain countries (including the United States, the United Kingdom and France) fell by over 30%… and its volume of transactions remained stable compared to sharp declines observed in many other countries.

Well-informed and eclectic, Japan’s major art collectors have always been fond of the great Western Moderns and Impressionists (Renoir, Chagall, Buffet and Munch are among the top sellers in the country). But the Japanese market also has its own “blue-chip” artists like Hokusai and Foujita (for their Moderns), Ayako ROKKAKU, Yayoi KUSAMAYoshitomo NARA (for their internationally sought-after Contemporary Artists) and Iwamoto MASAKAZU and Tatsuhiro IDE among their more local stars.

Over a million for Japanese Impressionist Seiki KURODA
Japan’s best 2020 art auction result came from a Seiki KURODA (1866-1924) painting. It’s worth taking a closer look: Kuroda is a major figure in Japanese art history. Last July a 1910 oil-on-canvas exceeded its high estimate by a million dollars when it sold for $1.3 million (The forest in the evening, iART Co., Tokyo). Seiki KURODA was a Modern painter steeped in French culture who spent 10 years of his life in Paris as of 1884 and was therefore one of the pioneers of Western style painting, known as yōga, in Japan. His style, inspired by Impressionism and the Barbizon school, revolutionized the pictorial tradition in Japan when he returned to teach in his native country. In France too, his work was greeted with honours: his triptych Sagesse, Impression, Sentiment (1900) and his Bord de lac (1897) were shown at the 1900 Universal Exhibition in Paris where he was awarded a silver medal.
Tsuguharu FOUJITA, the most sought-after…
The Japanese market is a natural rallying point for any major collector of Foujita’s works, which are sought after all over the world. In 2020 Japan handled 38% of Tsuguharu FOUJITA’s global transactions. Even France – where the artist spent more than half his life – offers a less dense market (26% of lots sold).

One of the best Japanese results in 2020 was particularly symbolic as it marked the absolute record for a Foujita work offered by a Japanese auction house. The work in question, La partie de Colin-Maillard, a real gem gilded with fine gold like an icon, fetched $820,530, double its high estimate at iART in Tokyo last June. The artist’s all-time record remains a result hammered in London in 2018: $9.3 million for his spectacular painting The Birthday Party (La fête d’anniversaire, 1949).

MR DOODLE, the most unexpected…
British artist Sam Cox (born 1994), better known by the pseudonym Mr Doodle, is all the rage in Japan. On 12 December at Est-Ouest Auctions Co., one of his large canvases (titled Summer depicting his invasive “spaghetti graffiti” fetched $321,000. MR DOODLE, who some consider to be the new Keith Haring, seems to be at the center of a perfect storm… and Japan is currently his most promising market. In 2020, the Japanese market accounted for 60% of Mr Doodle’s auction turnover (compared to 27% in Hong Kong). The demand is literally electric: all of his works have found buyers and transactions are accelerating. Several dozen works have already sold on the Japanese market since the start of 2021. If the pace continues, Japanese collectors will probably give Mr. Doodle a new auction record before the end of the year. (Rep. Mr Doodle, Hearts Red #2 (2019), $ 71,625 (SBI Art Auction Co, Tokyo, Jan. 2021)

Key figures for the Japanese market:
– $95.3 million in auction turnover in 2020
– 12,607 lots sold in 2020 out of 15,917 offered
– Unsold rate: 20% (versus a global average of 34%)
– 2020 turnover: down just 14% vs. 2019
– Historic auction record: $9.1 million for Tête de femme en pleurs (1939) by Pablo PICASSO (iART Co., LTD. Tokyo, June 2018)
– 2020 auction record: $1.3 million for The forest in the evening (1910) by Seiki Kuroda (iART Co., LTD. Tokyo, July 2020)