China casts a long shadow over the Japanese art market. However lively, large and long-suffering the art world in Japan may be, it has not garnered the kind of excited interest that the relatively young Chinese scene has in the last five years.

Just last month in London at Sotheby’s auction house, painter Yue Minjun’s “Execution” (1995) set a record for Chinese contemporary art at £2.93 million (¥660 million). In comparison, the top seller last April at the contemporary art sale by Shinwa Art Auction, Japan’s homegrown auction house, was Tenmyouya’s “Nue” (2004) at ¥16.5 million. Shinwa’s contemporary art auction this past Saturday saw similar restraint, with its high set by the Lee U Fan painting “With Winds” (1990), which went for ¥30 million ($275,000). Still, at a total of ¥460 million (¥537 million including the buyers’ premium) the auction was a solid one, selling out 97 percent of the lots, which mostly featured veteran Japanese contemporary artists such as Lee and Yayoi Kusama, more recent arrivals Takashi Murakami and Yoshitomo Nara, and emerging stars including Kumi Machida and Koichi Enomoto.

Some of that success in sales may have something to do with the influence of China. Shinwa, in its attempts to promote the Japanese art market, has decided that if you can’t beat them, ask them to join you.

“While Japanese are still hesitant about spending money collecting art after the 1990s, overseas collectors are stepping in,” Yoichiro Kurata, the young president of Shinwa Art Auction, tells the Japan Times excitedly. “Some really clever, wealthy Asians are coming to the market. The Japanese mentality became really crazy after the bubble — too disappointed, depressed — but I found aggressive people in the rest of Asia.”

The number of foreigners who took part in Saturday’s auction quickly confirms that the Japanese art world — at least as collected at auction — is now out of the hands of the locals.

“The surprising thing was that at the auction we held in April, overseas buyers made up 40 percent of the total buyers, and the previous December it had been 20 percent,” says Kurata. “Twenty percent to 40 percent, and what happened this weekend? Sixty percent.”

A regional breakdown of that 60 percent shows that these are hardly all experienced dealers and collectors out of the art centers of London, Berlin and New York getting in on the Japanese game. Only 10 percent of bids were by Westerners — 43 percent came from Asian countries other than Japan.

Interest in the Japanese market in general is increasing. The number of the paddles used to place bids was 350, up from 250 last April. This may be partly due to Japanese galleries being energetic about getting to art fairs abroad — in the West and in Asia — to promote themselves and their artists.

Among bidders on Saturday, the greatest excitement was reserved for 1960s avant-garde, late-career artist Kusama and one-note 1990s bad boy Nara. Most of Kusama’s colorful, rhythmic works, sold in two separate batches to keep the evening exciting, at least doubled their high estimates, with some even quadrupling them. Perhaps most unusual was Kusama’s “Lunar Eclipse,” a 1988 painting of a crocodile in a dainty hat that went for ¥12.5 million ($114,765) in heavy bidding that included one Chinese collector present.

A major surprise, though, was the fate of the largest Kusama for sale, “T.QX.Inifinity Net,” which Shinwa had even chosen for the cover of its catalog. After the earlier excitement, this one was completely passed. While the ¥40 million ($347,900) low estimate was 10 times of that for her other pieces, the problem may have simply been that the day before the official date of the work was corrected from 1961 to 1979, creating confusion in the market over its actual value.

Nara ephemera — mixed media drawings on notebook paper — met or doubled their high estimates at around ¥500,000 ($4,500) to ¥2.5 million ($23,000), and two of his more substantial works each fetched ¥6 million ($55,000). Like Nara, other internationally known artist such as Ai Yamaguchi, Makoto Aida and Murakami were also a strong draw for the Chinese collector and Western bidders in attendance.

Fukuyo Matsui’s nihonga (Japanese-style painting) “Keeping up the Pureness”(2005) was another major surprise in that it failed to generate much bidding. Matsui, whose photogenic looks and mysterious works have made her a star in Japan, considers the piece one of her best, yet it just nudged past its low estimate to sell at ¥9.2 million ($84,458).

That’s an interesting lesson for the Japanese market. While Matsui enjoys domestic fame, her traditional local style doesn’t translate outside of Japan. Artists who are familiar in Asia outside of Japan, and internationally, are the ones who are generating the excitement.

And in general, cheaper is better. As in the stock market, winners seek out the unknown and buy low. Smart Asian collectors who are getting into the Japanese market like it now because, compared with China, it is undervalued.

“Even really high-quality pieces are still one-tenth of peak bubble prices,” says Kurata. “We should re-evaluate Japanese art at 30 percent of that peak level.” That sounds like a deal, but even with the increase in attendance, Japanese collectors are cautious about their own homegrown product. “I brought Asian people to Japan. I wanted to add fuel to the fire,” Kurata says. “But this time, Japanese still didn’t move.”

Perhaps Japanese collectors are too close to the situation to recognize what they have; or maybe they know something the foreigners don’t. Sueo Mizuma, who has successfully introduced artists to the international market, thought that many of those presented weren’t yet ready for auction.

“My expectation was low from the beginning, since those shown in the catalog appeared as if they were the kind of early-career artist seen at (Murakami’s emerging art market) Geisai,” says Mizuma. “Still, it is a start, and I hope that more Japanese bidders will start actively making successful bids for high-price artworks by mid-career Japanese artists.”

If Japanese collectors don’t soon find the confidence to support what’s happening in their own backyards, and recognize the inequality in prices between Japan and the Chinese and Western markets, they may find that they are too late to their own game.

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