Originally created 07/16/98

Japanese collectors begin to unload bubble-era art

TOKYO -- Ten years ago, Harunori Takahashi was on a roll.

The young Japanese entrepreneur was buying up everything in sight, including land holdings in Tokyo, hotels overseas and control of two credit unions to fund his shopping sprees.

Like many of the newly rich who emerged from Japan's go-go economy of the 1980s, Takahashi also used his money to dabble in art collecting, picking up 11 paintings by acclaimed German artist Anselm Kiefer for $13 million.

But Takahashi's credit unions have since gone belly up. And like dozens of bubble-era billionaires who bid prices of Western art to dizzying heights in the late 1980s, all he wants to do now is sell -- no matter how low the price.

The trend has art auctioneers on alert.

Christie's Japan said art sales by Japanese have risen strongly over the last three years to about $41 million last year and are expected to increase again this year.

"What we see is the Japanese taking advantage of a healthy market in Europe and America and a relatively weak yen, which gives them a bigger return on their money," said Roderick Ropner, vice president of Christie's Japan.

In May, an auction of $78 million worth of impressionist and modern art by Sotheby's "contained a significant amount of works from Japan," said Sotheby's President Diana D. Brooks.

Among those works was Monet's "Le Grand Canal," which sold for $12.1 million, generating a rare profit for the Japanese seller who had paid $9.9 million in 1990.

But most of those who bought when the bubble was full blown have not been so lucky.

The hapless Takahashi had to sell his 11 Kiefer paintings to Britain's Entwistle Gallery last year for $6.5 million -- half what he paid eight years earlier.

A Japanese collector sold Pierre-Auguste Renoir's "Seated Nude" for $2.86 million at a Christie's auction in May, a big dropoff from the $6.05 million he paid for the painting at the height of the art boom in 1990.

And a loss could be in store for the family of paper company magnate Ryoei Saito. The Japanese magazine Aera has reported that the family is trying to sell one of the most expensive paintings ever, Vincent van Gogh's haunting portrait "Dr. Gachet."

Back in the '80s, investors like Saito were doing much more buying than selling. Flush with profits from the wildly overblown real estate and stock prices, they bought million-dollar memberships at the swankiest golf clubs, tooled around Tokyo's narrow streets in Rolls-Royces and drank green tea laced with gold flakes.

Rich Japanese, who until that point had mostly preferred to keep their wealth hidden from view, suddenly turned up at auction houses in Paris and New York.

From 1987 until early 1990, Japanese collectors and companies shattered a series of records at auctions of Western art. In 1987, Yasuda Marine and Fire Insurance Co. paid $39.9 million for van Gogh's "Sunflowers."

Saito, who died in 1996 at age 79 and one of Japan's richest men, stunned the art world in May 1990 when he paid $82.5 million for "Dr. Gachet" -- the highest price ever for a painting at auction.

Saito later admitted the van Gogh cost $33 million more than he expected, but he didn't seem to regret it. Two days later he paid the second-highest auction price ever when he bought Renoir's "Au Moulin de la Galette."

Some of the art buyers, like Saito, used their new wealth to fill out established collections. But many, Takahashi among them, would buy their first and last paintings during that short period in the late 1980s.

Late last year, Saito's family sold the Renoir for $50 million and is looking to unload "Dr. Gachet" as well, Aera reported.

The reason? Many of the highest-flying investors of the 1980s have become the biggest debtors of the 1990s -- rising and falling along with the country's economy.

For sure, the Japanese buying spree made a big splash in the art world. Yet, even aside from matters of profit and loss, there are reasons to question the purchases. At least two art experts have argued Yasuda's "Sunflowers" is a fake. The company maintains the painting is a genuine van Gogh, but the controversy continues.

"Pierette's Wedding," meanwhile, a Picasso painting thought lost for more than 40 years before it was bought by race-track developer Tomonori Tsurumaki, is again out of circulation. Tsurumaki gave it up after his company went bust. His creditors have locked the piece inside a warehouse.


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