Collectors dormant at first edition of the Tokyo International Art Fair due to limping economy

Stock market crashes and earthquakes shake but collectors were not so lively


Shaken by a minor earthquake and more than a little stirred by the tumult on the world’s stock markets, the Tokyo International Art Festival closed its doors on 3 November with high attendance, dealer enthusiasm for the new event, but little in the way of sales.

None of the art on show was damaged by the earthquake, not even a fragile and unsecured collection of Dale Chihuly glass, but the crashing Hong Kong and Singapore markets as well as the stagnant Japanese economy were blamed by dealers for the absence of collectors. “We haven’t seen any South East Asians, no Americans, no Europeans; and important Japanese collectors are away for the long week-end. We didn’t expect much, and we got nothing,” complained Tsugu Tamenaga of Tamenaga gallery.

Because the fair was sponsored by a host of Japanese companies it was ostensibly non-commercial, which meant that works were not priced and could only be “reserved” by an interested buyer. Red-dot fever was the least problem for the twenty foreign and fifty-six Japanese participants; however, all praised the fair’s efficient organisation and central location in the sparkling, new glass-and-steel Tokyo International Forum, sited between Tokyo station and Ginza. Most claimed that they had not been expecting much in the way of sales: “We wanted to re-establish contact with Japanese buyers,” said Felix Mottram of London’s Waddington Gallery; Alexander Corcoran of Lefevre Galleries thought it “a good way to get exposure.”

Overall quality was considered good. Bill Lieberman of the Metropolitan Museum singled out a life-sized wooden kiosk, created by Norichika Hayashi, for special mention. Priced at £60,000, it evoked a typical Japanese shop, complete with rolled newspapers, books, the ubiquitous cigarette-vending machine and telephones. His fellow organising committee member Germain Viatte (ex-Pompidou Centre) particularly liked the stand of the Parisian Galerie Beres, with works by Vuillard, Millet and Maurice Denis. London’s Lefevre Gallery showed a sparkling 1890 Monet “Effet de printemps à Giverny”, priced at $5 million, and while many galleries played safe with “Japanese brands” such as Utrillo, Rouault and Fujita, Leo Castelli had brought works by Dan Flavin, and two galleries were bravely showing Russian Constructivism.

With the private buyer largely out of the picture, galleries were focusing on Japanese museums, particularly the prefectural museums. “They generally invested large sums in a building and in a start-up collection of art”, said London’s Julian Agnew, who has been working with Japan for over twenty years. “Then after a pause more funds are released for further acquisitions.” However, with the downturn in the Japanese economy, museum budgets are being squeezed. Paris’s Daniel Malingue had museum interest in a Fautrier “Tête d’otage” at about £ 700,000, but “the process is long—one to one-and-a-half years” he lamented. New Yorker Dominique Haim, who specialises in works of art for public spaces, brought two large Rodin sculptures as well as a huge Léger mosaic.

The fair’s organiser is the Japan Fine Art Dealers’ League, which this year celebrates its fortieth anniversary under the able presidency of the glamorous and cosmopolitan Mrs Chieko Hasegawa. The fact that the normally hermetic Japanese market, where art deals are generally done discretely behind closed shoji screens has opened up to such a public display of art for sale is due to her dynamic presence. “I wanted to change the atmosphere concerning art, after the exaggerations and wildly high prices of the Bubble era [the late 80s]” she says. “During that time many non-professional dealers were working in this field. Our members go through a tough selection procedure.”

“This was not a retail opportunity” said Peter Boris of PaceWildenstein as the doors closed on an estimated 55,000 entries in three days. “It is great for seeing what’s out here, but now probably the opportunities are for buying, not selling. New York is the best place to sell art at the moment, with increasing interest in Asian artists there.” Would he come again? “I’m thinking about that” he says. “I wonder if it does make sense for Western galleries to participate in Asian art fairs.” Anisabelle Montanari of Galerie Beres concluded, “Stock exchanges play a primordial role. If there is a real crash I wouldn’t come back—it’s just too expensive.”

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Shaken, but not stirring'