Japanese have a deep love for some Western artists, particularly Van Gogh. At the height of Japanese bubble economy in the late 1980s, Japanese tycoons, overflowing with cash, spent hundreds of millions of dollars on works of art by van Gogh, Renoir, Modigliani, de Kooning, Chagall, Lichenstein, Klee, Picasso and other artists at record prices. According to official trade statistics between 1987 and 1991, the Japanese spent $8.76 billion on art. Many dealers believe the true figure is three times that amount.

Many Japanese art buyers purchased painting from Christie's and Southby's auction via Fuji Television Gallery, a satellite auction service. Even mid-level managers and salarymen got a piece of the action. They joined in and bought shares of paintings. Modigliani's “La Juive”, for example, was bought for $12 million by a Japanese group that had purchased $100,000 shares and hoped to sell the painting later for a quick profit. Other Japanese bought paintings and then used them as collateral for risky business schemes.

Good Websites and Sources: National Museum of Western Art ; Ten Most Expensive Paintings Ever ; Most Expensive Paintings


Record Prices Paid by Japanese for Paintings

At least five of the most expensive works ever sold at auction were purchased the Japanese. In 1987, Yasuda Fire and Marine, a Tokyo insurance company, purchased van Gogh's “Sunflowers” for $39.9 million, triple the previous record for money spent on a single painting.

On May 15, 1990 at Christies in New York, the art was stunned when Ryoei Saito, the owner of Japan's second largest paper manufacturer, paid $82.5 million for Vincent van Gogh “Portrait of Dr. Gachet”, the most money ever paid for a painting. Two days later Saito bought Renoir's “Au Moulin de la Gallette” for $78.1 million.

The highest price ever paid for ceramics was $6.4 million for a Tang dynasty horse sold by the British Rail Pension Fund to a Japanese dealer at Sotheby's in London in December 1989.

In 2002, a painting in the collection of the late Japanese painter Kazumasa Nakagawa, previously valued at around $100 or $200, was authenticated as a genuine Van Gogh by the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Painted between 1884 and 1885 in the Potato Eaters period, it was auctioned off in Tokyo for $600,000. The painting is in poor condition and not all that good.

One of van Gogh’s “Sunflower” paintings was destroyed in an air raid on Ashita in Hyogo Prefecture in World War II a few hours before the Hiroshima bomb was dropped.

Expensive Paintings After the Japanese Bubble Economy

After the bubble economy burst in 1990, many of the extravagant Japanese art buyers went bust or nearly bust and their paintings were seized by their banks or creditors, and placed in escrow and then crated and stored in warehouses, where no one can see them. In the mid-1990s, it was estimated that tens thousands of these "bad debt" art works, with an estimated value of over $3 billion, were held by Japanese financial institution as hostage until their debts were paid.

Sunflowers remains in Japan in the private collection of Yasuda Fire and Marine. “Portrait of Dr. Gachet, Au Moulin de la Gallette” as well as two high price Picasso works, “Acrobat and Young Harlequin and Pierett's Wedding”, have left Japan, presumably for Europe or United States. No one even knows where to find Picasso's “Deux Enfants”.Only a handful of bankers and art dealers know where the paintings are and they're not telling anyone.

Van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr. Gachet in Japan

“Portrait of Dr. Gachet” was completed only a few weeks before the Van Gogh's suicide. At the auction in 1990, bidding for the painting began at $20 million and rose quickly upwards in $1 million increments. After the bidding topped $75 million people began applauding. After a few minutes the gavel came down a $82.5 million ($75 million plus a 10 percent buyer's commission). It topped the previous record, for Van Gogh's “Irises”, by around $30 million.

Saito had “Portrait of Dr. Gachet” and “Au Moulin de la Gallette” placed in a warehouse. He reportedly looked the paintings once before he had them consigned to a warehouse. Soon after he bought the paintings Saito had financial troubles. He pleaded guilty to bribing an official and received a three-year suspended sentence.

Saito died in 1996. He once said he wanted to be buried with the painting, but is thought to be unlikely that really happened. After his death a struggle began between his heirs, his company and creditors over who woned the painting.

As of 2000, it was not even clear where “Portrait of Dr. Gachet” was. Most thought it was still sitting in a Tokyo warehouse. In 1999, a German newspaper reported that the painting had been sold in the United States for between $90 million and $130 million. Later it was revealed that it was sold to an affiliate of Sotheby’s for $90 million in 1997.

Picasso's Pierret in Japan

In 1989, Real estate financier Tomonori Tsurumaki paid $51.65 million at an auction for Picasso's “Pierret”, one of the artist’s most important works from his blue period. Bidding for the painting began at $16 million and was finished in four minutes. Tsurumaki's telephone bid was the most ever paid for a Picasso. [Source: Carol Lufty, New York Times Magazine. March 30, 1997]

Famous for his $30,000 tips and his entourage of women, Tsurumaki had hoped to use the painting as the cornerstone of a world-class art museum he hoped to open. Two months after the auction he still owed $20 million on the painting and had to get a loan from a life insurance company.

Tsurumaki also acquired van Gogh's “L'Homme East en Mer, Magritte's Le Domaine Enchanté, VIII”, three Monets, one Renoir, three Braques and four Bonnards. All of these painting were displayed in a museum he opened at one of his race tracks. A week after the opening the van Gogh was carted away by one of his creditors and others were slowly taken away one by one.

Many of these painting are now stored the Mitsui Fukugawa Trunk Room, a new warehouse near Tokyo's old downtown district. “Le Domaine Enchanté, VIII”," and “Pierret” are owned by Lake, Japan's forth largest consumer-loan operation, and “L'Homme East en Mer” is owned by the Chiyoda Life Insurance company.

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Updated in April 2015

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