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The auction house has hired ex-Christie’s specialist Mark Hinton as a consultant and plans a Fine Japanese Art auction to coincide with Asian Art in London on November 6. The sale will be a litmus test and Sotheby’s has not committed to holding future sales.

The firm held its last Japanese works of art sale in 2007, closing its Japanese department the same year as the market softened.

Stagnation

Demand was first hit by the so-called Lost Decade of economic stagnation following a collapse of the Japanese economy in 1991, but changes in fashion and taste have also impacted prices. It is now Chinese art sales, boosted by demand from the growing Chinese economy, that dominate the Asian art calendar.

Only Bonhams has continued to conduct regular sales in Japanese art – notably securing the Edward Wrangham collection of inro and sword fittings sold in five parts from 2010-14 – with material also moving to regional salerooms.

Salisbury’s Woolley & Wallis held its first stand-alone Japanese art sale in May, with another scheduled for the autumn.

Sotheby’s has occasionally sold high-profile Japanese works in the past decade through mixed-discipline Asian Art and Arts d’Asie sales. A Jomon-period Dogu figure achieved a European record for a Japanese work of art, selling for £1m as part of the Tsuneichi Inoue collection in 2015, while a copy of Katsushika Hokusai’s Under the Great Wave off Kanagawa sold in Hong Kong last year for HK$3.8m.

Gem of a sale

Henry Howard-Sneyd, chairman of Sotheby’s Asian Art, Europe and Americas, said: “This season – thanks to a happy alignment of all the critical stars – we’ll be holding a gem of a sale of Japanese works of art. In the course of the last few months, our team has encountered some great material – discrete groups of quality works from highly respected private collections spanning all the key areas of Japanese production.

“When material like that presents itself, the natural thing to do is to explore the opportunity it presents. We’ve been very lucky, too, to have been able to enlist the help, on a consultancy basis, of Mark Hinton, whose extraordinary eye and judgment is legendary in the field.”

Hinton worked at Christie’s for more than two decades.

Separately, Sotheby’s has re-hired Yasuaki Ishizaka as chairman and managing director of Sotheby’s Japan. He held the role from 2005-14.

A positive reaction

“I am very pleased Sotheby’s is reinstating Japanese art auctions. London is a hub and when they dropped the sales it was a great loss to the sector. This is very welcome news for the market.”

Laura Bordignon, Laura Bordignon Japanese Works of Art

“There is so much room for more appreciation of Japanese works of art. It is welcome that Sotheby’s is doing this – the more the merrier. These works of art have not had the exposure and not enough collectors know about them. It is about time Japanese works of art were given prominence again. The top-class Meiji period works in particular are seriously undervalued.”

Kevin Page, Kevin Page Oriental Art

Timeline of stand-out sales of Japanese art at Sotheby’s:

  • 1974-77 and 1997 The Mr Henri Vever Collection - a 4-part sale regarded as one of the greatest ever auctions of Japanese prints, London
  • 1991 The Walter Amstutz Collection, Tokyo
  • 1996 The Carlo Monzino Collection of Japanese Sword Fittings and Swords, London
  • 1998-99 The Collection of the Late Charles A. Greenfield, New York
  • 2002-03 The two-part Huguette Berès collection of Japanese Prints, Drawings and Illustrated Books, Paris
  • 2003 The George and Cornelia Wingfield Digby collection of Chinese and Japanese porcelain, London
  • 2004 Important Japanese Prints, Illustrated Books & Paintings from the Adolphe Stoclet Collection, London