Japan’s dynamic art market – and – Art Fair Tokyo

[12 Feb 2019]

A number of Japanese collectors are highly active on the world’s major art marketplaces. Cultured and informed, they are interested in Western Art’s key historical figures (especially the Impressionists and Moderns) but also provide strong support for their compatriots. And, although these collectors spend a lot on Western masterpieces (acquired in London, New York or Paris), Japan’s domestic market has remained dynamic with Japanese auction houses managing to disperse 88% of the works they offer for sale. Japanese auction operators therefore have one of the best sales ratios in the world market, with an unsold rate of just 22% (compared with 46% in Italy and Germany) and reflecting a healthy equilibrium between supply and demand in a mature market. Another figure confirms the current vitality of the Japanese art market: the country’s Fine Art auction turnover. In 2018 it reached over $122.3 million, up +31% versus 2017, an enviable growth rate by any standards. Today ranked 7th in the world, Japan’s secondary art market is showing substantial development potential, especially as its domestic artists are increasingly sought-after abroad.

Japan’s most sought-after artists

Several Japanese artists are among the most sought-after and the most expensive on the international art market. First and foremost is the Polka-dot princess Yayoi KUSAMA (1929), who is not only the world’s best-selling female artist at auction (with an annual turnover of $103 million), she is also Japan’s top-selling artist of all-time… way ahead of Foujita (for whom demand continues to grow), Takashi Murakami, Shiraga Kazuo and Hiroshi Sugimoto, the other four most outstanding Japanese artists (by auction turnover). Indeed, enthusiasm for Yayoi Kusama’s work is truly phenomenal. The popularity of her work was clearly visible when her Tokyo museum opened in September 2017; the ticket office was literally under siege for several weeks. Few Contemporary artists enjoy such extraordinary popularity with the public, and the fervor is also reflected in the auction field because Kusama’s work is being collected at the highest level around the world, and with increasing determination: according to Artprice, her price index shows a massive rise of over 600% since the year 2000. Naturally, lots of her works are available in Japan (accounting for 37% of her auction transactions in 2018), but the bulk of her auction turnover is hammered in Hong Kong (57%) compared with just 13% in Japan.

Another Japanese artist also enjoying strong demand is the remarkable Tsuguharu FOUJITA (1886-1968) and his prices are rising fast. In 2014, his canvas Nu au chat (1930) sold for just under $2 million at Sotheby’s in London and subsequently sold for $5 million in Hong Kong in 2016. The additional three million dollars in just two years reflects a strong revaluation as international demand for the artist’s best works has rocketed. Foujita joined the world’s top 100 (by auction turnover) in 2016 a position that was re-confirmed in 2018 after Bonhams sold his painting La fête d’anniversaire 《生日飨宴》 (1949) at 8x its low estimate. Fetching $9.3 million last October in London, The Birthday Party took Foujita even higher than Kusama’s record.

The Japanese market owes its development to artists who have built international careers during their lifetimes like Kusama and Foujita, and its Neo-Pop artists like Takashi Murakami and Yoshitomo Nara. Indeed Japan’s role on the international market today is essentially thanks to these signatures.

Beyond Neo-Pop, curators, collectors and international galleries pay a lot of attention to Japanese avant-garde movements such as Gutaï (there was a major Gutaï Retrospective at the New York Guggenheim in 2013) and Mono-ha. The artists of these two movements sell well in the West, as we saw last summer in Paris when a new record was hammered for Kazuo SHIRAGA (1924-2008) at $10.3 million (Takao (1959), Sotheby’s Paris, 6 June 2018). However, apart from this hardcore, Japanese artists are still poorly represented on the international market, whether at auctions or at major international art fairs like Art Basel, the Fiac or the Frieze, and the Japanese art scene is of course much broader than what the international market focuses on.

Art as seen from Tokyo

With Tokyo representing an increasingly dynamic capital of the global Art Market, it is not impossible that Japan’s artistic influence in the world will increase and expand. The country’s art market began to look structured at the turn of the 2000s thanks to the activity of “first generation” galleries like Taka Ishii, Mizuma Gallery and Tomio Koyama, not to mention Takashi Murakami’s KaiKai Kiki Gallery that ignited the Tokyo art scene. In addition to these top-notch Japanese galleries, Tokyo has attracted a number of leading international galleries including Blum & Poe and Perrotin since 2017. However, nothing is quite so good for the development of the domestic and international market as a good art fair.

Art Fair Tokyo is the oldest and largest art fair in Japan. This year’s (14th) edition (7-10 March 2019) will be an inspiring event designed to highlight the links between art and society. It will bring a whole generation of young people into contact with the art world via “Future Artists Tokyo”, an exhibition entirely organized by students from various Tokyo colleges and universities including the curatorial choices of works, the concept of the exhibition and the logistics. The fair also takes a step in the direction of Slow Living via its theme “art Life” which questions our lifestyle and our relationship to nature in an increasingly technological era. Above all, Art Fair Tokyo has adopted a notion not found in other international exhibition: the celebration of transversality. Unlike the hyper-specialized Western fairs on Modern or Contemporary art, Art Fair Tokyo welcomes all modes of expression including centuries-old craft traditions and hyper-modern new technologies.