Early in Her Career, Yayoi Kusama Gave Her Doctor 11 Artworks for Free Medical Care. Now, They Could Fetch $14 Million at Auction

The three paintings and eight works on paper will hit the auction block at Bonhams in May.

Dr. Teruo Hirose (L) with Yayoi Kusama (R). Courtesy of Bonhams.
Dr. Teruo Hirose (L) with Yayoi Kusama (R). Courtesy of Bonhams.

Eleven works that Yayoi Kusama gave to her doctor in exchange for medical care early in her career will hit the auction block in New York this spring.

The collection of works, some of which have never been publicly seen, belonged to the Japanese surgeon Teruo Hirose, a longtime friend of the artist who died in 2019, at the age of 93. Together, the three paintings and eight works on paper are expected to bring in $8.8 million to $14 million during a special single-owner sale at Bonhams New York on May 12. (The auction will take place just prior to Bonhams’s post-war and contemporary art sale that same day; none of the works will carry a guarantee.)

“This is an exceptional collection of rare early works by Yayoi Kusama,” Bonhams post-war and contemporary global head Ralph Taylor said in a statement. “Not only do these works have an incredible provenance, but they are also extremely significant in Kusama’s oeuvre, expressing many early features and themes which she would continue to explore and develop throughout her career.”

 

Yayoi Kusama, </i>Hudson River<i>, (1960). Courtesy of Bonhams.

Yayoi Kusama, Hudson River (1960). Courtesy of Bonhams.

The most noteworthy of the bunch is a pair of crimson red “River” paintings from 1960, each featuring Kusama’s signature “Infinity Net” motif of markings repeated to mesmeric effect. Titled, respectively, Mississippi River and Hudson River, the two works are estimated at $3 million to $5 million each. 

Meanwhile, a third painting from 1965, Untitled, which comprises several earth-toned orbs of color, is expected to fetch $2.5 million to $3.5 million. “It demonstrates Kusama’s experimentation during the 1960s, while also foreshadowing her recognizable mirror boxes—where images grow and radiate from a single point,” Taylor added.

Yayoi Kusama on the Staten Island Ferry, c. 1958. Courtesy of Bonhams.

Yayoi Kusama on the Staten Island Ferry, c. 1958. Courtesy of Bonhams.

When the artist emigrated from Japan to the U.S. in 1957, she brought with her some 2,000 works on paper, including seven of the eight pieces included in May’s auction. According to Bonhams, Hirose arrived in America around the same time, making a life for himself in the Bronx as a physician and surgeon—one of just a few such health professionals in New York who could speak Japanese at the time.  

Kusama first sought the doctor’s treatment in 1960, which he performed pro bono. As a thank you, the artist gifted him the works of art. They’re set to go on view at Bonhams Hong Kong from April 7-22 and again in New York from April 30-May 12. 


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