Foreign ownership of Japanese art

*Pictured Japanese Room, The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Courtesy of the Boston Public LIbrary 

Some Japanese people have mixed feelings about foreigners possessing art pieces deemed national treasures or seen as culturally important,’ is a sentiment expressed in an article in the online Yomiuri newspaper in relation to current exhibitions in Japan of temporarily repatriated Japanese masterpieces from international collections. It also relates to the recent filming of Australian collections of Japanese lacquer, in particular the support for contemporary lacquer master Unryuan Kitamura Tatsuo, by government broadcaster NHK. Unryuan’s works are in the V&A in London, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, NGA, NGV and AGNSW but have yet to find a place in a Japanese national museum. (His work is represented in the private Nomura Museum in Kyoto.) The media and public sensation caused by his work at the current exhibition at the 21st Century Museum of Art in Kanazawa may well see this situation change.

Unlike looted pieces from early European archaeological sites, pieces in museum collections of dubious provenance from nefarious international dealings, and China demanding back purportedly illegally gained artefacts and objects, Japanese works of art left the country legally in the hands of enthusiastic foreign collectors and connoisseurs, often because of lack of interest from the home culture. This is a phenomenon from the 19th century opening of Japan to the outside world, for example woodblock prints in France, not a result of the defeat in WWII, often given by Japanese as a reason for the lack of pride in their own culture.

Our recent visit to Japan took in both national and private museums and in most cases the lack of quality and quantity of works of Japanese of art was conspicuous. This has been noted in previous visits to Japan and is not simply a result of the current schedule of exhibitions. It is however, highlighted by the quality of the works currently on loan from overseas exhibitions, particularly Masterpieces from the Museum of Fine Art Boston at the Tokyo National Museum.

You will recall that during the Japanese economic ‘bubble’, the Japanese market presence was strongest in the field of Impressionist paintings and French glass. While there was an increase in interest, and price, in some areas of Japanese art, the strength in this market has always come from foreign buyers and collectors, for example the Khalili Collection of Meiji Art which started the international recognition of art of this period previously dismissed as inferior ‘export’ art. The same might also be said of academic interest and research in areas of Japanese art.

‘Overseas collectors sometimes find value in artworks that are overlooked by Japanese people,’ notes the Yomiuri article. This applies to netsuke, woodblock prints, the works of Ito Jakuchu, collected by Joe Price when largely ignored in Japan, and Soga Shohaku, currently at the Tokyo National Museum …and many other art forms and artists. It applies also to large numbers of younger artists, and female artists who choose, for these very reasons, to work outside Japan’s conservative and increasingly stultified arts organizations.

Recent sales in London and New York indicate an increasing interest in Japanese art, particularly the lacquer work of Shibata Zeshin, which, at GBP301,250, has recently broken world records again, and works by Imperial Art Academy artists. Information suggests that this interest again is coming from non-Japanese buyers.

The topic is as interesting as it is complex and well beyond the scope of this newsletter, but it does invite further discussion and thought. It also indicates plenty of room for investing in Japanese art before the Japanese recover their financial and cultural sense and revisit their own art.