Bonhams : Market ReportLéonard Tsuguharu Foujita
Market Report
Léonard Tsuguharu Foujita

Foujita's eponymous 1949 exhibition at the Gallery Mathias Komor in New York was the artist's chance to stage a significant comeback after years spent in political and artistic exile. Happily for Foujita, the exhibition was more than warmly received and facilitated his return to France where he would go on to achieve even greater levels of success, fame and wealth than he had experienced during the heady days of his early success in Paris during the 1920s. This triumphant return to form is an interesting premonition of what would happen to the market for Foujita's work years later. Followers of the Japanese-French painter would observe an incredible return to form in 2018, a year that represented a peak moment in the appreciation and value of his work.

Following the artist's death in 1968, the market for his work amongst collectors was stable if unremarkable, but all this changed when the Japanese economic boom of the late 1980s made its impact felt on the international art market. As Japan became the second-largest economy on the planet, collectors from the country started to compete with fervor at the Impressionist Art auctions in London, New York and Paris: breaking records in rapid succession for artists like Monet, Van Gogh, Picasso and Modigliani. Japanese collectors were largely responsible for setting the agenda of the now-marquee sales, with their taste for late 19th and early 20th Century art dictating who the art market stars were in any given season. Foujita presented a particularly interesting figure for these collectors: a Tokyo-bred painter who united many of the hallmarks of 19th Century Japanese painting with the stylistic innovations of the French avant-garde. His fame was equal in France and Japan, and he was one of a small group of Asian artists who had made a significant contribution to European Modernism. Of the top ten record prices for his work, five of these prices were set in 1989 and 1990, as Japanese museums and collectors competed over his masterpieces.

This came to a rather swift and sudden halt in 1990, when the effects of the Japanese economic crash were felt fully by the art market. Gone were the tumbling records and never-ending demand for Foujita's work, and the prices demanded for his paintings and drawings returned to levels more akin to those that had been seen prior to these glory years. He continued to be collected by lovers of the Ecole de Paris painters, but it would not be until the mid-2010s that we would see the same kind of intense competition for his works amongst collectors.

In 2014, Foujita's grand-scale oil from 1930, Nu au chat, came to the market and was sold for over £1,200,000 including fees at auction: this marked the beginning of a return to a peak that would culminate in a record-breaking year for the artist this past year. 2018 was a crucial year for Foujita, with two major exhibitions celebrating his life and work taking place in Europe and Asia: first at the Musée Maillol in Paris (Foujita, Painting in the Roaring Twenties, 7 March - 15 July 2018) followed closely by the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum (Foujita: A Retrospective ― Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of his Death, 31 July - 8 October). In October of that same year, Bonhams presented one of the artist's most elaborate canvases from the aforementioned Komor exhibition, La fête d'Anniversaire. When the hammer was brought down in our London saleroom on the 11th of October, the record for Foujita's work was obliterated: the exceptional piece hailing from a private French collection made £7,096,250 including fees, just shy of double the previous record set in May 1990.

The long-term reasons behind this incredible result are manifold, but perhaps the most obvious is the recent surge in appetite for his work throughout Asia. The return to the market in earnest of Japanese collectors has certainly been part of the story, but perhaps the most significant change is the emergence of collectors in Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China. By 2015 Chinese collectors had established themselves as the single-greatest force in the international art market. Just as the Japanese were in the 1980s, many Chinese collectors are interested in what Foujita represents: an Asian artist whose influence was felt enormously in Europe. Prior to the sale, we toured the painting to Paris, where the expert and curator of the Musée Maillol show, Sylvie Buisson, kindly gave a lecture on Foujita. The painting was then flown to Hong Kong, where I was able to give my own talk on the work to collectors who were pleased to see the work exhibited in Asia for the first time. The reception to La fête d'anniversaire was rapturous, and when bidding from 11 participants from 5 different countries resulted in a world record, last set almost 30 years ago, it seemed to be a poetic reflection of Foujita's very own triumphant comeback in 1949, the year the piece was painted.

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