Hokusai’s Great Wave reaches a new milestone


A few days before the opening of the exhibition Hokusai: Inspiration and Influence at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (March 26-July 16, 2023), one of the finest known proofs of Hokusai’s Great Wave off Kanagawa revised the artist’s auction record by fetching $2.76 million at Christie’s during Asian Week (vs. an estimate of $500,000 – $700,000). We take a closer look at this icon of Japanese art, the price of which is constantly rising.

Under the Wave of Kanagawa (aka “The Great Wave”) (circa 1830-1831)

Created by master printmaker HOKUSAI (1760-1849) and officially titled Under the Wave of Kanagawa, the print auctioned by Christie’s on 21 March 2023 is a very early and rare proof of remarkable quality and freshness, one of the finest versions in circulation. The lines are particularly clear because the wood block used was not yet worn; the demarcations between the sky and the cloud formations are clear, and there is a subtle pink cloud that is characteristic of the early prints.

According to the Wall Street Journal, six bidders drove the price to $2.76 million in a battle lasting 13 minutes. Neither the identity nor the nationality of the buyer has been disclosed, but Takaaki Murakami, Head of Japanese and Korean Art at Christie’s New York, told the Wall Street Journal that several buyers – previously unknown to Christie’s – joined the race to acquire this work of an extremely rare quality.

Kanagawa oki nami ura (Under the well of the Great Wave off Kanagawa) [“Great Wave”]


Hokusai created the print in the 1830s (during Japan’s Edo period) as part of a series known as Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji. The artist, then in his seventies, was apparently experiencing difficulties at the time. It is not known how many copies of this image were made, or how many are still in circulation, but the most valued prints are the first proofs. The Great Wave, which began circulating on the European market towards the middle and the end of the 19th century, is particularly known for having influenced artists like Claude Monet and Vincent van Gogh before becoming one of the most popular images in the world. It has also influenced Modern and Contemporary artists like Loïs Mailou Jones and Yoshitomo Nara. The current exhibition at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) traces, among other elements, the influence of this iconic image on John Cederquist’s How to Wrap Five Waves (1994–95), Roy Lichtenstein’s Drowning Girl (1963), and Andy Warhol’s The Great Wave (After Hokusai) (1980–87).

To illustrate the immense popularity of the image, Christie’s specified in its catalog that: whereas Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring yields 1,450,000 hits in Google, and Van Gogh’s Sunflowers 5,530,000, Picasso’s Guernica 12,500,000, and Snoopy 73,700,000, the Mona Lisa beats them all with 129,000,000 hits, but still, the Great Wave will forever, I would say, be unbeatable with its 1,040,000,000 hits.

Nearly two centuries after its creation, The Great Wave has also been published in NFT format by the British Museum in collaboration with the French start-up LaCollection.io. The 200 NFTs of works by Hokusai were produced in the autumn of 2021 to accompany the British Museum’s exhibition Hokusai: The Great Picture of Everything. The NFT of The Great Wave off Kanagawa number 1/10 (“super rare” category) reached the price of $45,000 (10.6 ETH at the time).

Hokusai’s annual auction turnover in millions of dollars: the first quarter of 2023 has already generated half of the artist’s 2022 total (Copyright Artprice.com)


Hokusai at auction

Despite the fact that the exact number of prints produced is unknown, the emblematic Great Wave is definitely Hokusai’s most sought-after and highly-valued work: the image features seven times in the artist’s Top 10 auction results and its price record has risen a million dollars since March 2021 when Christie’s sold a superb, well-dated proof (circa 1831) for $1.59 million.

The new record hammered on 21 March at $2.76 million makes Hokusai the most expensive Japanese artist in Q1 2023 ahead of Takashi MURAKAMI‘s (whose The Castle of Tin Tin (1998) fetched $1.6 million) and Atsuko TANAKA (1932-2005) (whose Untitled canvas from 1966 fetched 1,5m$). It was also the best price ever hammered for a Japanese print in auction history and it hoisted Hokusai into the TOP 100 most successful artists on the global art auction market in the first quarter of this year 2023.

Hokusai: Global Ranking at auction (Copyright Artprice.com)

Current exhibition

‘Hokusai: Inspiration and Influence’ at the Boston MFA explores Hokusai’s impact during his lifetime and beyond. More than 100 of the artist’s woodcuts, paintings and illustrated books are displayed alongside some 200 works by his teachers, students, rivals and admirers, creating juxtapositions that demonstrate his influence across time and space. The exhibition at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts runs until 16 July 2023.