The works had been drawn in 1829 as illustrations for an unpublished book but only came to light in 2019 having been forgotten for more than 70 years.
Hokusai created the 103 small drawings for a book called Great Picture Book of Everything but it is not clear why they were never published.
They were drawn during a period in the artist’s career where he was previously thought to have created relatively little, due to a succession of personal challenges. Within the previous two years he had suffered the death of his second wife and recovered from a minor stroke. And just months after these pieces were finished, Hokusai pleaded destitution in a letter – in part due to gambling debts incurred by his grandson.
Now the works that have come to light mark a turning point in the seventy-year-old artist’s career, demonstrating that he was in fact entering a new burst of creativity that would soon give birth to his famous print series, Thirty-Six Views of Mt Fuji (c.1831-33).
They were sold to the museum by London dealer Israel Goldman, who acquired them at a Piasa sale in 2019, where they were attributed to Katsushika Issai (1821-80), a minor Hokusai pupil. The dealer, convinced they were by hand of the master, managed to acquire them at a hammer price of €110,000.
The British Museum said the works will join its “extensive collection” of Hokusai works which is one of the most comprehensive outside of Japan. The collection includes an impression of Hokusai's Great Wave, which was also sold to the museum by Goldman.
The collection of drawings were previously owned by the collector and Art Nouveau jeweller Henri Vever (1854-42) and were last publicly recorded at an auction in 1948 in Paris. They are believed to have remained in a private collection in France and were only rediscovered in Paris last year.
The British Museum was able to buy the drawings with the help of a grant from Art Fund but the price was undisclosed.