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Forgotten boom: the legacy of Japan's 1980s art buying spree

Record prices pushed art market valuations forward on a global scale

NEW YORK -- On March 30, 1987, a painting from Vincent Van Gogh's iconic "Sunflowers" series was up for auction at Christie's London. Speculation was that it would go for as much as $12 million, nearly $3 million more than the last Van Gogh, "Landscape with Rising Sun," auctioned at the highest-ever price of $9.9 million.

Then-head of Christie's Impressionist and Modern department Michael Findlay was holding the $12 million bid (approximately 9.5 million pounds). Raising it again -- certain that would close the sale -- Findlay was astounded when the bids kept going up, and didn't stop until hitting $39.9 million (24.75 million pounds).

In one fell swoop, the sale broke valuation records and shocked the international art world.

The buyer was Japanese insurance company Yasuda Fire and Marine Insurance Co. A modest press release subsequently explained that the sale was to commemorate their 100th year of business. The painting would be housed at a viewing area in their office building.

Japanese art buyers had burst onto the scene thanks to a frenzied domestic property market bubble. But when Japanese moneylender Yasumichi Morishita acquired 7% of Christie's shares in 1988, Japan's stake in the global art market was literal. Individuals and small business owners with real estate were suddenly able to borrow against their holdings to buy any number of things -- and impressionist art was at the top of the list.

Visitors admire paintings by Van Gogh at a Tokyo museum in 2003, including the "Sunflowers" work, left, purchased in 1987 by Yasuda Fire and Marine Insurance Co.   © AP

Findlay, who held the Impressionist and Modern art position at Christie's from 1984 until 2000, is now director at Acquavella Galleries. With more than 50 years in the art business, he knew that artists like Cezanne, Monet, and Van Gogh had always been important to Japanese collectors, calling it "the steady drumbeat of interest in impressionist painting."

The relationship between Japan and impressionism has been historically symbiotic. Like many of his contemporaries (including Claude Monet), Van Gogh had been an admirer of the ukiyo-e prints by Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858), Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), and Kitagawa Utamaro (ca. 1754-1806). Van Gogh built a collection of more than 600 Japanese prints from Paris which he intended to resell for some much-needed liquidity. Ironically, according to research by art historian Alistaire Sooke, they failed to provide him with a significant profit.

Suddenly finding himself at the center of an art boom, the head of Christie's Japan, Sebastian Izzard, remembers holding previews in Tokyo using impressionist art "as a hook for wealthy people who might then become interested in Japanese art," he explained, "and it worked pretty well."

The Japanese government supported the renewed independent cultural investment through an increased number of museums and galleries, such as the Edo Tokyo Museum. How to entertain Japan's aging population was one factor encouraging this cultural investment, as was the desire to increase tourism.

"The Japanese museums became powerful museums," Izzard recalled. "They were buying things left right and center, which also stimulated Japanese prices in the West."

But the newfound interest in Japanese art abroad paled in comparison to the high values for Western art on the Japanese market: by 1989, Findlay estimated that one-third of all art activity in impressionist, modern and contemporary art, both private and at auction, was Japanese. Factoring in the per capita number of high net worth individuals, the significance was undeniable.

In May 1990, slightly over two years after the Sunflowers sale, Japanese paper magnate Ryoei Saito set two new records within a week with the purchase of Van Gogh's "Portrait of Dr. Gachet" for $82.5 million at Christie's, and then $78.1 million for Pierre-August Renoir's "Au Moulin de la Galette" at Sotheby's.

The previous year, Australian tycoon Alan Bond had purchased Van Gogh's "Irises" for an impressive $53.9 million, but Saito's purchase was still even higher -- more than doubling the seminal 1987 record for a Van Gogh painting. With the Renoir, Saito broke the previous Sotheby's London record, a hardly comparable $17.7 million from 1989.

Saito told the press that his passion was more important than any price as he took out bank loans against the value of his paper holdings. "I borrowed the money from the bank, and I will continue to do it to buy good art when it becomes available," he once told the Los Angeles Times.

Saito faced criticism for his fervor, but was unwavering. "If I did not buy them now, they would never have come to Japan," Saito said told UPI journalists in Tokyo in 1990. "The people will understand the value of my purchases in 50 or 100 years."

Findlay remembers Saito as uniquely passionate. He had a sense of humor, and would come to art viewings in person with his wife and children, rather than send a dealer or middleman. Although Findlay did not speak Japanese, nor Saito English, together they would stand before a painting for up to 20 minutes, silently admiring it together.

"This isn't a guy who bought to invest or bought to show off. He actually liked it!" Findlay remembered with a laugh. "And for a moment in his life, he could afford it."

Japanese paper magnate Ryoei Saito, pictured here in 1991, and the Renoir painting he purchased for $78.1 million the previous year. (Top photo Jiji, bottom photo Getty Images)

In addition to the purchases made by the Yasuda Fire Company and Saito, Tomonori Tsurumaki purchased "Les Noces de Pierrette (The wedding of Pierrette)" by Pablo Picasso in 1989 for $51.3 million, with the intention of displaying at a museum beside the Formula One racetrack he had just built on Japan's Kyushu island. The work was purchased through Nippon Autopolis Co. "Of course, it collapsed," Findlay said. "But he had actually had a gallery built into the stands of the racetrack as part of the appeal."

As quickly as it arrived, the frenetic energy of Japanese buying power soon dissipated. By 1991, after Japan suffered one of the biggest property market collapses in modern history, it was over.

While highly inflated prices lured art onto the market, works left unsold rose from about 14% in 1989 to 25% the following year. Sotheby's closed their Japanese art department in the 2000s, and Asian art specialists left their positions. The relationship between Japanese and impressionist art, which had initially been so favorable, became more problematic. Sales, it seemed, would never return to their former glory.

When Saito died in 1996, the "Portrait of Dr. Gachet" was initially lost to Westerners. Arrested for bribery two years earlier, there was press speculation that perhaps Saito's jokes about being buried with the painting were true. Had 'Dr. Gachet' been cremated alongside him?

The 1989 Paris auction where Tomonori Tsurumaki purchased Picasso's "Les Noces de Pierrette (The wedding of Pierrette)" for $51.3 million   © AP

Ultimately, the Van Gogh turned up in the hands of Austrian fund manager Wolfgang Floettl, who later sold it for $100 million, in part to repay various loans. 'Dr. Gachet' then passed to the Italian collection of someone known as "the Lugano man," who refused to display it due to what is presumed to be a complex cocktail of discretion, estate troubles, and a troubling Nazi-era provenance. Today some suspect that 'Dr Gachet' is owned by New York art collector Ronald Lauder, an Estee Lauder heir.

Alan Bond, the now-deceased Australian whose "Irises" record was sandwiched between the record Japanese purchases, had borrowed the money he needed to buy his Van Gogh from Sotheby's. After he couldn't pay it back either, the painting was transferred to the Getty Museum.

In grim comparison to the high values of Japan's boom, a Milwaukee, Wisconsin, family excitedly auctioned a newly discovered Van Gogh in March 1991 with Leslie Hindman Auctioneers in Chicago. They proudly boasted just $1.43 million for the sale.

Many of the Japanese businessmen who leveraged their real estate holdings large and small went bankrupt, with hundreds of impressionist and modern paintings used as collateral to pay back their bankers. The Lake Company Ltd, a Japanese consumer-loan company, acquired Tsurumaki's artworks around 1994, in addition to 40 George Braque works and nihonga (traditional Japanese) paintings of their own.

Van Gogh's "Portrait of Dr. Gachet" broke records in 1990 when it was auctioned off to Ryoei Saito at Christie's in New York for $82.5 million. (Left photo AP, right photo Reuters)

Already struggling by 1992, Lake Co. Ltd was purchased by GE Capital in 1998. After former Sotheby's Impressionist head David Nash and his wife forming Mitchell-Innes & Nash, a private gallery, they worked with Findlay to sell Lake's art collection on behalf of GE over a period of five years, both at auction and privately, quietly avoiding market oversaturation.

As the highflying trips between Tokyo and New York slowed, and the catalogs got thinner, the auction houses simply focused their interests elsewhere: Sotheby's to Russia and Christie's to China.

Not all the paintings met anticlimactic ends. One Tokyo-based Renoir, "Madame Valtat," was reportedly stolen from a Japanese home before it came up for auction in 2000. "Les Noces de Pierrette" was resold at a loss in 1994, reemerging in the collection of Russian oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev a decade later. He had purchased it from Swiss freeport magnate Yves Bouvier for $43.8 million, by way of Findlay's Acquavella Galleries.

Some of the paintings acquired by Russian oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev, including a work by Leonardo da Vinci, went on to be sold at prices that shattered the records set during the Japanese buying boom.    © AP

It was one of the first works the Russian acquired during a decadelong relationship that included further acquisitions of paintings by Van Gogh, Amedeo Modigliani, Gustav Klimt, and, most famously, "Salvator Mundi" by Leonardo da Vinci for $127.5 million. The pair ultimately fell out over accusations of art fraud, and much of Rybolovlev's collection ended up fetching far higher prices than during the Japan boom. The "Salvator Mundi," for example, was later sold at Christie's New York to Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman in 2017 for $450 million.

Japan's art moment may have passed, but it carried the current of art market valuation forward on a global scale. The Geneva freeport, a value-added tax-free network of warehouses, paved the way for a number of savvy investment strategies in Europe and the city-states of Hong Kong and Singapore. Auction houses mimicked the crossover strategies from Japan in their Korea and China franchises, and American investment portfolios followed those British and Swiss collections that were influenced by Asia.

Artistically, the Japanese canon continues to impact the world's elite art collections. Tastes changed from British silver, American furniture, and Orientalist objects, but ukiyo-e paintings were rediscovered by American collectors after they had been centralized in Japan. Prefectural museums stimulated during the boom, such as the Hakone Open-Air Museum and the Pola Museum, continue to seek out important artworks. They may not be as financially impactful as they were decades ago, but, as Saito prophesied, the legacy of his buying has helped to enforce the importance of art.

Given the economic stagnation over the last three decades, Japan's return to its former fiscal extremes is unlikely. Izzard also pointed to the country's liberal cultural export license laws, which are relatively flexible for Japanese objects outside of registered and prohibited National Treasures and important cultural properties. It is more Western buyers of Japanese art who are driving up its value.

Japanese e-commerce billionaire Yusaku Maezawa splashed out $110.5 million for a work by Jean-Michel Basquiat in 2017.   © Reuters

Today, Japanese tastes vary from one individual to the next. When e-commerce billionaire Yusaku Maezawa paid $110.5 million for a Jean-Michel Basquiat work in May 2017 -- breaking his own record of $57 million for another work by the same artist -- he posted a selfie with his purchase on Instagram.

"I am happy to announce that I just won this masterpiece," Maezawa wrote beside the image. "When I first encountered this painting, I was struck with so much excitement and gratitude for my love of art. I want to share that experience with as many people as possible."

And "Sunflowers?" That first seismic buy has never left Japan. The multimillion-dollar painting is a quiet part of the permanent collection of the Yasuda Kasai company, and now hangs in the Sompo Japan Nipponkoa Museum of Art in Tokyo. Accused of being a fake, prevented from travel after 9/11 due to high insurance values -- even briefly quarantined -- as of July the museum and the painting once again welcomed visitors. It is the crowning work among the museum's 630-painting collection. The reopening was marked with a wall mural of real, woven florals.

Sunflowers is open for visitors today.

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