Japanese speculators are scouring the art world for the best money can buy, catapulting prices upward with a series of audacious bids at auction houses in New York and London.
Many museums and smaller galleries are dismayed, saying they can’t compete.
This new buying spree is being led by real estate speculators and bootstrap entrepreneurs such as Yasumichi Morishita, a Japanese moneylender who made his fortune with high-interest loans and has a reputation as an aggressive and indiscriminate buyer of art.
Morishita has been the biggest Japanese buyer in recent months, dealers say, as he fortifies his stock of Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings at his gallery, Aska International. Aska also owns 6.4% of Christie’s stock, making it one of the five largest shareholders in the auction house.
Morishita and other Japanese investors spent $230 million in a series of auctions in November alone.
Along with individuals enriched by the appreciation of the yen and ballooning stock and land prices, these new Japanese buyers have become a strong force in many collectors’ markets, from antique musical instruments to vintage wines.
Nowhere is this as evident as in the market for Impressionist and modern paintings, where Japanese dealers and collectors are snapping up about 40-50% of total sales at London-based Christie’s and Sotheby’s auction houses, in some cases, dealers say, with little regard for quality and price.
The Japanese appetite for Western art became evident in 1987 when Yasuda Marine & Fire Insurance Co. paid $39.9 million for Vincent van Gogh’s “Sunflowers"--at the time the world’s most expensive painting.
Western collectors still are able to set art-market benchmarks, such as the $53.9-million sale of Vincent van Gogh’s 1889 “Irises” in 1987 to Australian tycoon Alan Bond--now the world record. (Sotheby’s recently acknowledged that “Irises” may be for sale by Bond whose financial empire has crumbled since he bought the world’s most expensive artwork.)
But in a satellite-linked Tokyo-Paris auction on Nov. 30, 1989, a Japanese resort and auto-racing firm, Nippon Autopolis, became owner of the world’s second most costly painting, with its $48.9-million knockdown of Picasso’s “Les Noces de Pierrette.”
Nippon Autopolis is far from the only Japanese winner of recent art prizes. Shigeki Kameyama, wealthy owner of Mountain Tortoise Gallery in Tokyo, set a new record for a living artist with his $20.68 million purchase of Dutch artist Willem de Kooning’s “Interchange” in November.
Morishita made the following buys last fall at auctions in New York and London:
--$10 million for one of Picasso’s most important early works, “La Maternite.”
--$6.8 million for Paul Gauguin’s 1889 painting of a Breton boy in a landscape.
--$25 million out of total sales of $131.29 million from the estate of the late Campbell Soup heir John T. Dorrance, including $7.15 million for Van Gogh’s “Man at Sea.”
The new Japanese corporate buyers “are entirely different players from the owners of small- and medium-size firms who used to just collect privately,” says Kazuko Shiomi, president of Sotheby’s in Tokyo.
“Corporations that have made their money in real estate or financing have become professionals, part of the art industry.”
Traditional dealers haven’t exactly welcomed gruff, no-nonsense Morishita. Police have investigated his Aichi corporate finance firm several times, and he received a one-year suspended sentence in 1986 for falsifying documents used in stock transactions.
Kiyotaka Kori, Aska’s gallery manager and a former secretary to the tycoon, says Morishita wouldn’t mind having a better image.
“In some reports, we’ve got a bad reputation, and Mr. Morishita doesn’t like that,” Kori said as he relaxed on the Italian silk couch in Aska’s gallery, a bright spot of pastels and chrome beside a grimy freeway in central Tokyo.
Morishita, who lives in a brick mansion in one of Tokyo’s toniest neighborhoods, wasn’t available for an interview. “He really doesn’t like having his picture taken,” said the gallery manager.
Kori says Morishita makes a practice of bidding under the house estimate at auctions, but when he really wants something, “there’s no limit. Our purpose is to get the painting.
“We hope that in the future, if you want to see a Monet or Renoir, you will go to Aska International.”
Experts say such do-or-die purchases are underpinning a worldwide surge in the art market, which has continued unabated despite shocks in other financial markets, thus inviting still more investment.
Sotheby’s composite art market index, which set prices at 100 in 1975, had inflated to 911 by late November, up from 732 in the fall of 1988 and 476 in 1987.
In areas where Japanese buying is strongest-- Impressionist and post-Impressionist, modern (1900-1950) and contemporary paintings--indexes have more than doubled in the last two years to 1,525, 1,415 and 1,945, respectively, in late November.
“The market is very, very strong compared with other investment instruments,” said Shiomi of Sotheby’s, which has decided to hold auctions in Japan twice a year.
Japanese collectors made similar forays into international art markets in the early 1970s, when the first flush of affluence led trading firms, among others, to diversify their investments beyond the tea ceremony bowls they traditionally collected. That first flirtation with art dealing ended abruptly with the 1973-74 oil crisis.
Today, investors like Morishita, who says he has been privately collecting Western and Japanese art for 30 years, see a market they expect to continue strong.
Japan’s imports of art, antiques and collectibles quadrupled from $411.4 million in 1986 to $1.712 billion in 1988, according to the Finance Ministry.
In the first nine months of 1989, imports of paintings alone totaled $1.55 billion, the ministry says.
Shiomi attributes the seemingly unquenchable Japanese thirst for Western art to a desire for a better “quality of life” after decades of hard work and deprivation.
“The big tycoons always had big art collections, but after World War II they reinvested into business instead,” she says. “Now we are paying attention to what we are really working for.”
But longtime members of Japan’s exclusive “Bijutsu (Art) Club"--the inner circle of established art dealers--fear they could be driven out of the market by upstart newcomers like Aska.
“The powerful companies like Aichi (Morishita’s finance company) could wipe us out,” complains Kazuo Fujii, who says he started collecting from scratch just after Japan lost World War II.
“We’ve studied art, we’ve committed our lives to cultivating our clients. These guys have no commitment. If the market sours in a couple years, they’ll just drop it.”
Fujii is quick to point out, however, that it isn’t just Japanese tycoons who are driving prices sky high.
“Look at the enormous profits the British Railways Pension Fund has made,” he says, showing an old catalogue detailing how the British fund acquired artworks at modest prices and resold them for hefty profits.
So far, such traditional dealers as Fujii haven’t fared badly in the race to capture the best. Many of the cozy galleries in Tokyo’s fashionable Ginza shopping district have fine collections of Impressionists along with works by Japanese artists.
Many small museums and galleries scattered throughout the country are displaying prized Picassos and Monets as Japan goes through a Western art boom that lures thousands of people in search of fashionable culture.
But the spending power of the big buyers far outweighs the smaller Japanese galleries, Shiomi says.
“Art is just one of their investments,” she says. “If they sell, fine. If they don’t, they’ve still got a nice gallery.”
In this country, where appearances often are everything, collecting Western art is one way to acquire a “nice image, a sign of understanding things Western and being scholarly,” Shiomi says.
Nippon Autopolis has bought an expensive veneer of culture--its new Picasso--for an auto-racing theme resort it’s building in the mountains of southern Japan.
The resort will boast a Formula One auto-racing circuit, a hotel, year-round skiing on artificial snow and a fishing hole, as well as a museum featuring the Picasso.
Its aim, the company says, is to “create a new culture harmonizing humanity and nature.”