How many times do you visit an art museum and say to yourself, “I wish I could own that picture?” We all think that art investment is the preserve of the super rich, that Sotheby and Christie are for other people not ourselves. Well, that’s not actually true. Obviously an Andy Warhol or a Van Gogh will stretch most pockets, but there is great art out there, rich in history, beautiful to look at and best of all, because art of the past is a finite resource, an investment that will hold its value.
For me, the woodblock prints of nineteenth century Japan fit the bill for premium low cost investment just perfectly. I run an online gallery that exclusively sells Japanese prints of this period, or ukiyo-e as it is called. I guess I’m biased but I love this work so much (I’ve been a collector all my life) that I not only want to sell the work, I also want to publicise, show it, write about and even make films about it.
First a little bit about the work. For those who think they are unfamiliar with Japanese prints, I’m sure that you will have seen the great wave by Hokusai crashing across drinks coasters or greetings cards, or else the red sides of Mount Fuji on a fridge magnet or poster somewhere. This type of art is actually more visible than you might think. Right now, there are major ukiyo-e exhibitions at national galleries in London, Boston, Oxford and Brooklyn to name just a few.
There’s a lot of history to cram into a short article, but simply put: the Japanese made woodblock printing their principle visual art for two or three hundred years. Japan was isolated at this time and the style of work, the method and the subject matter developed in a strict and easily identified way. The process itself is very complicated and hugely skillful, involving an artist making a drawing and a craftsman carving anything up to twenty blocks of wood from the drawing and printing each block by hand onto paper in separate colours. The final result of the process is an edition of exquisite, many coloured prints.
Subjects can include warriors from history, myths and legends, beautiful women, landscape, poetry or most commonly the great actors and performances of the kabuki theatre. Everything is rich in colour, visually arresting and each print has a story to tell. What about costs and investment though?
Art investment is a little like real estate. You can buy property because you like it or you can buy it because you want to see it rise in value. The ideal is to buy property that you like which is also going to give you a return. So it is with art. Contemporary art is a minefield; there are so many people making things, so many objects in the world and no real measure of what’s hot and what’s not. At the high end, the risk is less daunting because there’s an elaborate network of dealers and collectors to stabilise the market and point you in the right direction. But high end contemporary art is wildly expensive and still attracts risk.
More sensible is to pick a niche genre that you like, where the artist or artists are dead and where there’s a track record of market price and a consensus about value and quality. This is why Japanese prints are such a good buy at the moment.
Like in property, there are high premiums for top pieces which rapidly increase in value and quickly become unaffordable and as a result, ripples spread outward and the market follows in the wake of soaring prices at the heart. For years the market and the experts were obsessed with the classical period of Japanese art, the seventeenth and eighteenth century.Prices for artists such as Utamaro, Sharuku or Hokusai reached astronomical levels. For example an Utamaro print fetched $311,679 in 2002. Naturally the market needed to expand and Hiroshige, the famous nineteenth century landscape artist now commands up to $30,000 – $40,000 for a single print. Increasingly the prints of the nineteenth century have become highly valued and artists such a Kuniyoshi and Kunisada now command high prices. Scarcity of classical period pieces now means that there is increasing interest in this Edo period art making it an excellent time to invest in what is now appreciated as very fine art of the highest order.
One thing people notice is that prints by the same artist vary widely in price… why is this? Condition is very important, remember these are fragile things and it sometimes seems miraculous that they have survived at all. Prints are prone to fading, attack by worms and insects, water damage, damp, fire and careless handling and excess trimming. Condition is paramount for value but also certain prints by artists are considered to be of exceptional artistic value, others are rare because the editions were very small. If you buy from reputable dealers however, then market value will on the whole be fairly reflected in the price. Most of all buy prints because you like them; a good dealer will provide lots of information on a piece: the date, subject matter, who is depicted and so on. Information like this enriches the experience of ownership enormously. It is also possible that your print will be in a significant museum collection; the MFA in Boston has thousands of ukiyo-e prints many of which are online. With an artist like Utagawa Kuniyoshi, there a large number of major exhibition catalogues, coffee table books and so on which may have your print illustrated.
Japanese prints are a world of magical narrative and beauty…take time to look at them and maybe visit Christies on line and look at prices to reassure yourself of the market. I’ve put a link below to our own gallery, the Toshidama Gallery and also a link to our blog which has articles, videos and image resources. Please contact us if you have any request for information on this rich and wonderful art.