Partial success for Japanese woodblock prints at the Bérès sale

Hokusai is now hotter than Sharaku


The collection of Japanese woodblock prints, books and drawings amassed by the famous Parisian dealer Huguette Bérès, which was sold by Sotheby’s on 27 November, fell short of expectations. Mme Bérès, who died in 1999, had built up the collection over 50 years; it was unique in Europe and its reputation had extended as far as the Land of the Rising Sun.

The sale totalled c4.4 million, slightly under the lower estimate. Thirty-five lots were left on the block. The Bérès heirs were sanguine, pronouncing the result “remarkable in view of the current uncertain economic and political context and the economic situation in Japan”.

The works were previewed before the sale in Tokyo, New York and London and had attracted considerable numbers of visitors, and there were Japanese collectors present at the auction.

The star lot was a complete series of 36 views of Mount Fuji by Hokusai, published in Edo (the old name for Tokyo) in 1830-35. This was bought by an anonymous bidder for c1,49 million, just on its low estimate. According to some sources, the buyer was a Japanese collector, who had also bought 120 Hiroshige prints, including 100 Edo views, for c828,000 on 20 June 2002 at Sotheby’s Olympia.

The Musée Guimet preempted 12 lots, including seven Hokusai drawings, at prices from c9,000 to c41,000, and five Harunobu prints which were hammered down between c10,200 and c30,650. The Regional Council of the Alpes-Maritimes (in the South of France), preempted one of the finest prints, a portrait of the courtisan Yatsuyama Hiranoya by Kitagawa Hiranova dating from 1795-1796, for c55,950. These preemptions whisked some of the finest pieces from under the noses of the collectors who thought they had bought them. Under this practice, which is unique to France, the State substitutes itself for the last bidder and acquires the lot at that price; it is not popular with auctioneers. In London and New York, institutions have to bid on an equal footing against collectors. It is interesting to note that Sotheby’s wanted to sell the Bérès collection in New York, but the family rejected this.

Virtually all the books in the sale were sold, for a total of c573,000. Two were among the top 10 prices: Utamaro’s Memories of fishing at low tide, published in 1789, doubled its estimate at c81,250 and Soken sekisatsu, 1767, by Ito Jakuchu, went for c55,950 over an estimate of c15/20,000.

Among the failures were six of seven important portraits of actors by Sharaku, active about 1794-95, estimated between c24,000 and c180,000. It seems that this artist, about whom little is known and who used to be highly sought after, is no longer in favour among woodblock print collectors.

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 132 January 2003