A Rare Version of Hokusai’s ‘Great Wave’ Sells for a Record $2.8 Million, Signaling Smooth Sailing for Asia Week
The series of gallery and auction sales netted a robust $132 million, driven by increased travel from China.
As the 14th edition of Asia Week New York drew to a close this week, sales figures suggested the robust purchasing of pre-pandemic years is returning.
As of press time, 22 out of 26 galleries and five out of six auction houses taking part in the nine-day event reported a sum total of $131.7 million in sales, according to organizers. The five auction houses—Christie’s, Sotheby’s, Bonhams, Doyle, and Heritage—have concluded their live and online sales, while iGavelAuctions has its last sale slated for April 18.
This year’s total, a welcome return to strong spending, far exceeds that of 2022, with its relatively slim $98.6 million. It still has not fully hit pre-pandemic numbers: the year 2019 saw a healthy collective total of $150.5 million, while 2017 eclipsed all other editions, fetching a total of $423.7 million from 50 participating galleries and five auction houses.
Asia Week organizers attributed the success of 2023 to increased global travel. This was the first edition taking place as most lockdown travel bans around the world have been lifted. Most notably, China reopened its borders, allowing citizens to travel abroad without needing to quarantine, and the United States recently lifted testing requirements on travelers entering the country from China.
Dessa Goddard, chair of Asia Week New York, noted that “increasing levels of international travel by scholars and colleagues from around the globe demonstrated once again what a powerful magnet New York City is for all of us who value celebrating our love for Asian art with our colleagues and friends.”
Here are five of the top-selling item from Asia Week New York 2023.
Under the Well of the Great Wave off Kanagawa (early 1830s)
A rare Katsushika Hokusai woodblock print set a new record for the artist, one of Japan’s most famous historical figures, when it sold for $2.8 million on March 23. Projected to fetch $500,000 to $700,000, the print, titled Under the Well of the Great Wave off Kanagawa, attracted six bidders who drove up the price in a 13-minute battle. The work’s sale helped Christie’s net nearly $67 million (premiums included) across its three sales during Asia Week.
Hokusai’s “wave” series, which he began in the early 1800s, remains one of his most recognizable bodies of work. Introduced to the European market in the mid-19th century, these prints depict boaters braving stormy conditions in the waters off of Tokyo, with Mount Fuji visible in the background.
Also known as the Great Wave, the print is Hokusai’s signature piece and a symbol of Japan’s artistic heritage. The exact number of prints produced remains a mystery, as does the number of prints that still exist. The most coveted prints are the earliest ones, with sharper lines and a subtle cloud against a pale pink sky—like those exhibited in this iconic print.
White Porcelain Moon Jar (18th Century)
In addition, an 18th-century moon jar sold at at Christie’s for nearly $4.6 million, far surpassing its $1 million estimate and setting a new record for the distinctive category of Korean pottery.
Moon jars are a style of round, white porcelain jars made during the Joseon dynasty (1392–1910), especially in the 18th century. This particular vessel is nearly 18 inches (46 centimeters) tall, making it large for a traditional moon jar. It’s formed of two parts joined at the center, or the belly, and set with a slightly everted short neck. It is applied with a lustrous, translucent glaze.
“Fine 18th-century moon jars are extremely rare, and this gentle white sphere is a superb example,” noted a statement from Christie’s New York. Previously the jar belonged to a private owner in Japan.
A total of 19 pieces of Korean art, including porcelain jars and paintings, were listed in Christie’s Japanese and Korean Art auction, including a smaller white porcelain moon jar from a similar era that sold for $100,800.
Maqbool Fida Husain, Bulls (1961)
From its Modern & Contemporary South Asian Art auction on March 20, Sotheby’s sold Maqbool Fida Husain‘s Bulls (1961) for a record-setting $2.7 million, greatly exceeding its estimate of $1 to $1.5 million. The auction—which featured 75 lots spanning India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh—helped propel the house to a total of $32.5 million across five Asia Week sales.
Leading the auction was Bulls, one of the most important works by the Indian modernist, who died in 2011 at the age of 95. “It epitomizes the very essence of Husain, modernizing mythology to deliver a secular message,” said Sotheby’s Manjari Sihare-Sutin, vice president, specialist, and head of sale. The work depicts a bull with sharp, bold brushstrokes, including a blue handprint on the body of the animal. Sotheby’s noted that the image evokes the Hand of Fatima and the Hamsa, symbols of luck and protection throughout North Africa and the Middle East.
The painting appeared on the cover of Husain (Abrams), a 1971 monograph on the artist that introduced him to a global audience and marked a watershed moment in his career. Three years later, Bulls was exhibited in the artist’s first solo show in an American museum, the Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts.
Ceremonial Jade Axe (Neolithic Period)
Another Sotheby’s auction, Important Chinese Art, which included extraordinary porcelain pieces, early ceramics, jades, and furniture from private and museum collections, raked in more than $12.2 million in sales. Among the more noteworthy items was a Neolithic jade ceremonial axe from the Guennol Collection. Estimated to fetch $400,000 to $600,000, it sold for more than $1 million.
The axe, with its simple yet powerful silhouette, is exceptional for the varied colors of the jade stone. The central striation, intentionally incorporated into the design, runs through the middle. “It is an embodiment of the ingenuity and imagination of the ancient Chinese carvers,” said Sotheby’s, “who attained near perfection in working with this precious material using only primitive tools.”
“As the level of workmanship involved in the creation of jade objects was an indication of its owner’s importance,” added the auction house, it’s likely that the axe “belonged to a powerful person who was in the position to command such an important piece.”
Gray Jade Cong (Neolithic Period)
Over at Bonhams, a massive, 13-tier gray jade cong from the Neolithic period of China sold for more than 50 times its estimate, fetching $1.5 million during a white-glove auction of works from New York-based gallery J. J. Lally & Co. In total, the auction house pulled in an impressive $21 million across all its sales—the biggest Asia Week to date for the company, a spokesperson told Artnet News.
A cong is a cylindrical vessel encased in a square prism that tapers from top to bottom and is typically hollowed out by drilling. This cong features jade stone of olive-green tones and dates from 3000–2500 B.C., placing it at the time of the Liangzhu culture. It was sold in the first of a two-part auction of the Asian artifacts collection of dealer and connoisseur James J. Lally, who announced his retirement in 2021.
Other coveted items in the March 20 sale included a glazed white stoneware jar and cover from the Sui dynasty (581–618 A.D.), a jade figure of a recumbent beast (220–589 A.D.), and a rare silver meiping—or a vase for plum blossoms—from the 12th to 13th century.
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