Christie's Auction of Hokusai's 36 Views of Mount Fuji
Mark your calendars! There’s a big event coming up in March. Christie’s the world famous auction house will be Auctioning a rare complete set of 46 ukiyo-e woodblock prints by Katsushika Hokusai featuring several of the most famous prints of his career. These prints include Under the Great Wave off Kanagawa, and Red Fuji. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Here are some more details about this event.
- "The last time a complete set appeared on the market was more than 20 years ago, in 2002," said Takaaki Murakami, the head of Christie's Japanese and Korean art department in New York.
- The sale price is expected to be in the millions - I’ll have my prediction of the final sales price at the end of this article.
- The Japanese artist Hokusai designed this series when he was 70 years old back in the 1830’s when he was struggling following the death of his wife and trying to support a gambling grandson.
- The publisher who initiated the series was a member of a religious cult that worshipped Mount Fuji - the cult believed by worshiping the mountain and climbing it, they would be reborn, and able to find happiness.
- The print series was originally called 36 views of Mount Fuji but since it was so popular they made 10 additional prints the final number of prints is 46.
Ok let’s take a look at the prints. Please note that the 46 prints in this blog are not from the upcoming Christie’s auction, they are from other museum collections.
We start with this unassuming, minimalist frontispiece or cover page. How plain and elegant.
Then the first print he hits us with is Under the Great Wave off Kanagawa, which shows fishing boats challenging the waves, Mount Fuji is just a small snowy triangle in the distance. There were only 1000 copies of this originally printed and less than 130 remain.
He follows the wave with two Fujis very similar in composition but very different in energy. The first called “Fine wind clear weather” or Red Fuji, the second “Rainstorm beneath the summit” he shows us Fuji from a different vantage point, but this time there’s a storm beneath the mountain, those zig zagging lines are lightening.
Next a series of bucolic views, where we see Fuji as part of the urban landscape of the day. It goes without saying that all the prints have Mount Fuji in them and half the fun of this series is finding Mount Fuji in the landscape. Hokusai really demonstrates his inventiveness and artistry in the creative ways he builds the compositions around Fuji. Here are the full 46 prints in the series.
You’ll notice that many of the prints in this series have been printed with blue tones (called aizure-e). The Prussian blue pigment had been recently introduced from Europe and it was a very popular color. It was also cheaper to print in one color, and once the print series became successful, the publisher added more colors.
How Much Will The Hokusai Prints Sell For?
Now let’s talk about the potential purchase price. I’m going to assume the collection is in very good condition, probably all bound in the same album or possibly kept as separate prints. The wild card is that The Christie’s expert, Murakami, said that
“Some of the prints in this set are earlier impressions, while others are later impressions. This series was not issued as a set but rather was published in several installments,"
I’m having a hard time figuring out what that means. We know that all the prints weren’t published at the same time, it took several years to design and print all of them - so that’s a given - but what does he mean by some prints are earlier and others are later… how much later… that worries me a bit. Maybe the original owner, 190 years ago, never had a complete set or some of the prints were damaged so he or some later owner substituted in prints from later editions. Worst case - it could be that this set of prints is composed of prints separated by 20, 40, 60 years.
I asked Christie’s for more details but they didn’t provide any - so Until Christie’s comes out with more information, I’m afraid we’ll just have to be patient.
Pricing will depend primarily on the condition - and the edition of the prints. For our estimate, let’s assume they were all printed in the 1830’s. If we look at the auction prices of some of the most famous individual prints we can see the following:
- The Great Wave: $2.7M
- Storm below the summit: $550K
- Red Fuji: $507K
- Surface of Lake Misaka: $100K
- Kajikazawa in Kai province: 87K
- Sekiya Village on the Sumida River: $87K
- Tago Bay near Ejiri :$68K
So we’re up to about $4 Million dollars. That’s only 6 prints - there’s 40 left. Based on the sales prices I’ve seen on the rest of the series I’ll be generous and average them out to $35,000 each. So some quick math and I get to a total for the series of $5.5Million.
Plus don’t forget the buyer is going to have to pay Christie’s 15% commission now we’re up to $6,325,000 not including taxes and shipping. But not including commission I’m going to guess it sells for 6.5 Million dollars (I could be way off).
If you’re interested in some great online sources for this print series: The Cincinnati & Hamilton County Public Library has 36 of the prints in fantastic condition.
And kudos to the experts at hokusai-katsushika.org where you can find the complete series along with different print variations.
Until next time, mark your calendars for the auction in March, and happy collecting.