Japan: intense activity


The Japanese Contemporary Art Market has made a substantial and unexpected leap in recent months. The annual volume of turnover from Contemporary artworks on the country’s secondary market increased 48% from $6.7 million to $ 9.98 million between June 2016 and June 2017.

Of course $9.98 million is a relatively small total compared with the totals generated by the world’s most successful marketplaces. Indeed, totals below 10 million p.a. look very insignificant compared with the six-figure performances of the USA, UK, China and Hong Kong, countries that generated between $160 million and $700 million from Contemporary art in twelve months.

Nevertheless, the $9.98 million in Japanese turnover is far from negligible: it places the Japanese Contemporary art market in eighth position worldwide, ahead of Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands. Japan is therefore relatively well-ranked worldwide and beats other Asian marketplaces that are considered ‘dynamic’, like South Korea, the Philippines, India and Singapore.

The Japanese market is particularly dependent on the ‘middle market’ (works that fetch more than $50,000 are rare) and enjoys a particularly dense offer: over the period 2016 to 2017, the Japanese Contemporary art market sold more works than Hong Kong! More than 1,700 Contemporary artworks changed hands in the archipelago, a particularly honorable figure that reflects the appetite for art of Japanese collectors. Moreover, these collectors are among the most demanding in the world since they generate an extremely high unsold rate… close to 70% compared with 41% in the USA for example.

Japan’s market largely depends on Mainichi Auction, its biggest auction operator. Mainichi Auction auction sells more Contemporary artworks than most Asian and even non-Asian auction houses. With 999 Contemporary works sold over 2016 / 2017, Mainichi ranked fifth in the world in volume terms, behind the giants Sotheby’s, Christie’s, Phillips, and, not without some surprise, the Polish auction operator Desa Unicum, which sold nearly 1,400 Contemporary works over the same period. With a turnover of $4.1 million, Mainichi Auction accounts for 41% of Japan’s secondary  Contemporary art market, well ahead of its competitors SBI Art Auction ($2.8 million), Shinwa Art Auction ($1.7 million), Est-Ouest Auctions ($1.2 million), iART Co ($593,000), Mallet Japan ($537,000) and Augur Auction ($60,000).

The high volume of Japanese Contemporary artworks sold on its auction market is to some extent related to the fact that in-vogue Japanese artists like Aya Takano, Takashi Murakami and Yoshitomo Nara all flood the market with multiples (works produced in series). Moreover, the Japanese artists Takashi MURAKAMI, Yoshitomo NARA and Hiroshi SUGIMOTO are among the world’s top-ranking artists in terms of the number of works sold. Murakami heads the ranking with 373 artworks sold at auctions over the period 2016-2017, and Japan is where he has sold the largest number of works over the past 20 years, despite a dense offer on other marketplaces, including the United States.

However Murakami is above all known to the Japanese via other channels. Certain major collectors and patrons support the cultural productions of their compatriots, like Soichiro Fukutake who transformed the island of Naoshima into a world-famous artistic refuge, or the young billionaire Maezawa who bought Basquiat’s Untitled (1982) for $110.5 million in May 2017 and is creating a Contemporary Art museum in Chiba, east of Tokyo. In October 2017 a new museum will open in Tokyo dedicated to the major Contemporary artist Yayoi KUSAMA, substantially boosting the city’s art scene… the movement is growing and Contemporary Art is increasingly becoming a part of Japan’s DNA.