Narrow bridges

Building bridges and helping the “return to the roots” of Japanese art

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Since I started working for the international auction house Christie’s as an expert in appraisal and expertise for Japanese art, I have been in charge of auctions, based mainly in New York.

Three years ago, on becoming president of the Japanese branch of Christie’s and returning to my country after 17 years, I again encounter many opportunities that make me think about the fluidity of art and the way it is art can be passed on to future generations. This is because in recent years, as if it was in synch with my return to Japan, I have been involved in projects with Japanese artwork overseas that are “coming home” to some. after the others.

Christie’s not only organizes auctions, but also negotiates “private sales” between seller and buyer. And in recent years, I have specialized in the latter. With auctions, you cannot choose your buyers, but with an individual transaction, for example, it will be easier to negotiate the return of a fusuma (sliding door) painting from abroad to a temple from which it came. .

Thanks to fate, I actually had the opportunity to help bring back to their “place” a total of 13 fusuma panels, including the “Gunsenzu”, “Kinkishogazu” and “Bashozu”, which are part of the Kyoto Ryoanji temple fusuma collection. which were sold during Haibutsu Kishaku a movement to abolish Buddhism ー during the Meiji period. Twenty-seven panels currently exist.

Especially with the “Gunsenzu” fusuma, I have had the rare experience of auctioning it twice over time. It is part of the Ryoanji fusuma collection which is even kept at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York).

Katsura Yamaguchi, President and CEO of Christie’s Japan (provided by Christie’s Japan)

The fact that such a historical temple treasure appears on the market is rare in itself. But the fact that the temple decided to make the purchase at its second auction moved me deeply that a work of art should be housed where it is supposed to be housed.

Besides, how can we qualify anything other than “fate” that after 123 astonishing years, during a private sale in 2018, we were able to return to the same temple, the fusuma painting “Bashozu”, which belonged to an Englishman. private collector.

Such returns to the roots of Japanese art are generally welcome. However, our work of course involves both the exit and entry of works of art.

The export of ancient Japanese art abroad is often viewed negatively, and the export of important national treasures and cultural property is generally prohibited. However, as they are hosted in renowned museums abroad, people all over the world are able to come into more contact with Japanese culture. Thus, there will be an increase in the number of interested people making visits to Japan.

It is also true to say that works of art play the role of something akin to “cultural diplomacy”.

Through exhibitions, many of you have probably seen the “eccentric” works of art introduced in the Etsuko and Joe Price collection, most notably the works of the painter Itō Jakuchū of the Edo period. Two years ago, 190 pieces from the Price collection were sent back to Japan and were kept at the Idemitsu Museum in Tokyo, a project I was also able to contribute to.

As I mention in my book, Jakucho no Himitsu (PHP Publisher, 2021), the Prices, who had already decided to donate half of their collection to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, wanted to sell the remaining half to public spaces like Japanese museums. They said it gives meaning to their collection over the years when it can help researchers navigate their way between Japan and the United States to promote cultural exchange.

Through men, works of art will always remain. I think the biggest part of this job is that I can serve as a bridge builder to make the connection possible.

(Read it Sankei Shimbun article in japanese on this link.)

Author: Katsura Yamaguchi, President of Christie’s Japan


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