Stunning Results for Japanese Prints During Asia Week

Bill Stein at Christie's auction

For many, the strong prices achieved by Japanese woodblock prints at Christie’s and Bonhams during Asia Week came as a shock, with exceedingly low buy-in rates and sale totals far exceeding aggregate high estimates. The sequence of sales opened with Christies live auction, which offered 61 print lots, 55 of which sold (90%) and 42 of which sold above their high estimates (69%), including several at 6 to 10 times their high estimates. Bonhams live sale followed two days later and the results were equally impressive, with 56 of 62 Japanese print lots selling (90%), most for more than their high estimates.

Next came the online Christies sale of Japanese landscape prints, which really raised eyebrows. 91 lots were offered and all but one sold, with 73% exceeding their high estimates. Prices were strong across the board – for Edo-period ukiyo-e classics to 20th century shin hanga. A Hokusai Red Fuji brought nearly half a million dollars; other Hokusai designs brought $14,000 to $40,000 each. A late impression of Hiroshige’s Shono sold for nearly $14,000 and a copy of his 36 Views of Fuji Sea Off Satta wave design brought $24,000. Shin Hanga prints in the sale did better still, with a group of Hiroshi Yoshida Indian designs bringing $6,000 to $16,000 each and a group of 21 Hasui designs all selling above their high estimates, with 4 selling for more than $10,000 and another 11 for more than $4,000. A second state Shoson Willow Bridge brought $17,000. Other online sales with more modest offerings of prints also did well.

So what’s going on? Are the results an aberration or harbinger of things to come? The answer is complicated, but basically the world-wide supply of quality Japanese prints is at an all-time low and hungry collectors are bidding up the few that appear on the market. For over 20 years new technology has become increasingly efficient at finding prints in the hands of casual collectors and their descendants and moving them to dealers, institutions, and collectors.

The endless supply of woodblocks gobbled up on the cheap by Americans after WWII is running out. In 1991 Captain Fred Welch consigned to Christies over 1000 shin hanga prints that took years to sell. Bob Muller, who died in 2003, had a collection many multiples that size. Those days and those print hoards are long gone. Add to the diminished supply a reinvigorated taste for Japanese prints from flush Japanese collectors and you have a recipe for bidding wars. These fundamentals are unlikely to change, so if your hope is to wait out the price upswing, don’t hold your breath.