Many local goodies appeal to the expat population of Japan — kimono, sake and next-generation electronic goods to name a few. The area of fine arts, however, can be daunting, with most paintings and even photographs by established contemporary artists priced from the millions to the many millions of yen.
There are inexpensive Japanese art calendars and posters available at art shops and from online operations both here and overseas, and these do fine as tack-to-the wall decoration. But the more serious would-be collector might want to consider buying fine-art prints — limited-edition works on paper that are made either by an artist or under their close supervision.
Whether produced using lithography, woodblocks or any other related process, the appeal of prints over posters is the superior quality of their color, resolution and paper. And, the advantage of prints over uniques is, of course, price.
For this week’s column, I asked two of Tokyo’s gaijin-friendly contemporary print dealers to outline what they offer and provide tips for those interested in buying prints for the first time.
First up is The Asian Collection, located in Meguro Ward, a relaxed, home-style gallery which also handles sculpture and painting, but focuses on modern and contemporary prints from Japan and Asia.
Bob Tobin, a Keio University professor who runs the place with partner Hitoshi Ohashi, offers the following advice for the fledgling collector:
* Think of your visits to the gallery as part of your education, finding what you like and don’t like. Whatever you buy, discover what is special about the print. Was it printed on washi [traditional Japanese paper]? Did the artist hand color the image? What does the imagery mean? Don’t be embarrassed, gallery staff will be happy to share their knowledge.
* Ask the gallery for information about the artist and the artist’s comments about the work, because every picture has a story.
* Watch out for posters masquerading as prints. Make sure it’s signed. If you’re buying an older work that is framed, ask about the condition of the print or look at it outside of the frame — a good dealer will tell you the condition of the print or any problems with the condition even before you ask.
* If you buy work unframed, get it framed as soon as possible. Prints can be damaged easily. If you know Japan summers, you know that clothes can be damaged by heat and humidity, it is the same for artwork that is not protected.
* Get a receipt and statement of authenticity that you can use for insurance purposes. Also, ask the dealer for a copy of the artist’s resume and statement.
* Enjoy what you buy — put it where your family and guests can see it and talk about it. Then think about your next one — do you want to start a collection with other works by the same artist or other works by different artists?
The other must-see spot for Japanese contemporary prints is the Tolman Collection. Opened in Mi- nato Ward, Tokyo, more than 35 years ago, the Tolman is housed in a traditional Japanese-style building, and now also has locations in New York, Singapore and Shanghai. They are the largest publishers of contemporary Japanese prints in the world, with 2,000 original editions by some four dozen artists to their credit.
The indefatigable Norman Tolman is a great guy who I’ve had the pleasure of meeting at openings over a good many years. He explained the Tolman’s recipe for success:
* We have evolved thanks to our close connection with the artists over these long years. The selection of artists has been carefully considered to suit our own taste, and in fact this is why most people come to us, to see what we like and to choose from among the thousands of works we have available.
* One important point to note is the numbers of prints in an edition, usually found at the bottom of the print. You should know that even in small editions, Japanese prints are not terribly expensive; in our case the prices determined by the artists.
* The atmosphere of the gallery is important, we have a large space of six different rooms, to provide our clients with a sense of calm and allow them to serenely consider what they are looking at. We also support a policy of not pushing anyone to buy anything, rather patiently explaining to them about the art, the artist, and the particular print in which they show interest.
* When buying prints, the paper is of special interest, since much of it is handmade. When you see something you like, find out as much about the artists as possible — we are happy to help with that. Then we can spread out a portfolio and show examples of other works the artist has made.
* The best way to learn is to come out and look at prints. We do special exhibitions, publication parties of new works, at least one per month. The range of styles, sizes and so on is wide so visitors usually find something they want to take away with them.
* We are now quite well known in Japan, and internationally, and so have a larger clientele consisting of all sorts of people. It is a great mix, people come here with their kids and our staff love to play with them while the parents spend hours looking at our art. Our gallery is fun, sort of an oasis in the city.
Both these spots are highly recommended for anyone interested in discovering print collecting. Remember, while work by some young and emerging artists will appreciate in value over the years — sometimes dramatically — art should be a passion first and an investment second. In this sense, anyone can be a collector because the process is so simple — take your time, look at a lot of different work, then go with what you love.