TOKYO (Reuters) - Last November, a set of abstract gunpowder drawings by a Chinese artist fetched $9.5 million at an auction in Hong Kong. The top result for a painting by a Japanese artist at a Tokyo auction that same month: $140,000.
Art prices around the world are going through the roof, driven by Chinese, Indian and Russian buyers.
But Japan’s art market, like its economy, has been subdued, despite its rich aesthetic heritage and influential artists such as Takashi Murakami and Yoshitomo Nara.
This is changing as Japan’s neighbors -- Chinese, Koreans and Taiwanese in particular -- go bargain-hunting for undervalued contemporary art.
And a range of new projects in Tokyo, from art fairs to investment funds, are welcoming the debutants.
“There’s a very aggressive move from Taipei,” says Yoichiro Kurata, president of Shinwa Art Auction in Tokyo, which hammered off the aforementioned acrylic painting by Yayoi Kusama, globally known for her polka dot paintings and sculptures.
“Taiwanese think that the quality of Japanese art is high, and prices are very low compared to Korean and particularly Chinese and Indian art,” Kurata told Reuters by phone from Korea, where he was meeting clients.
After an influx of Koreans at Shinwa’s art auction last April, where a quarter of the bidders were non-Japanese Asians, Kurata decided to ramp up marketing from Singapore to Taipei.
At the auction in November, half of the bidders were other Asians -- Chinese, Taiwanese, Koreans and Singaporeans, but also Thais. Only 10 percent were Westerners.
Japanese art is comparatively cheap due to the weak yen and tepid economy, but also a historical dearth of domestic buyers.
Not that there is a lack of interest in art. Museum attendance is among the highest in the world. The Mori Art Museum, one of Tokyo’s most influential contemporary art spaces, attracts about 1.2 million visitors a year with its 53rd-floor location that offers stunning views of Tokyo.
“Japanese don’t think they can buy art. They think it’s something they can see at a museum,” Fumio Nanjo, the affable director of the Mori Art Museum, told Reuters.
Unlike Chinese or Indian trophy-hunters, rich Japanese who want to bring their heritage into their homes tend to focus on antiques and tea ceremony accessories, such as bamboo spoons.
In the booming 1980s, the Japanese did buy art -- mostly European Impressionists. Art was shown by department stores, who displayed crowd-pulling masterpieces to boost sales.
“Department stores had been showing Western art for such a long time, bombarding people with it, and there was nothing to alter it. So for people, that was art,” Nanjo said.
“We lost the chance to show contemporary art in public spaces, particularly in the museum context.”
The Mori museum, which opened in 2003, has been building its own collection of contemporary Japanese art, mostly commissioning pieces from artists it exhibits.
This year, for the first time, it may also shop at Tokyo’s new contemporary art fair, 101TOKYO, which debuts in April.
A satellite fair to the larger Art Fair Tokyo, which sells everything from antiques to woodblock prints, 101TOKYO targets ordinary Japanese who may feel intimidated by galleries.
“Japanese art is good and many people say it’s a good time to buy,” says Misa Shin, director of Art Fair Tokyo, who also collects art herself. “We try to encourage people to go from looking to buying art.”
She has also noticed growing interest in the fair from art collectors in Hong Kong, Korea and Taiwan. And despite concerns in the arts scene over the gloomy global economic outlook, many say it could actually benefit the art market as investors shift their money from stocks and bonds to alternative assets.
For foreign buyers with connections and confidence, there are also Tokyo’s thousands of tiny galleries.
On a Saturday in January, a giant Irish wolfhound called Bacon was dragging his owner, flamboyant curator Johnnie Walker, through the backstreets of Tokyo, two art-loving Western bankers and a reporter in tow.
Walker had organized a gallery tour for the banking couple, who wanted to buy some artwork for their new flat in Tokyo.
A former broker, Walker heads Artist Residency Tokyo, which supports emerging artists and offers free exhibition space in a city where most artists have to pay for being shown.
“This is bargain basement,” he said in one of the galleries, pointing to a 550,000 yen ($5,124) stained-glass window depicting a skeleton sitting on a stone.
“You put it up at an auction six months from now, you get double that price.”
Walker, who is also advising 101TOKYO, readily names a few Japan-based artists he thinks are worth buying: painter Miki Mochizuka, for example, or Robert Platt, a British artist who studied in Kyoto and is represented by a Japanese gallery.
Unsurprisingly, both are included in the A.R.T. Collection, an art fund Walker is setting up together with hedge fund advisor Edward Brogan. And he says that while Japanese art is still comparatively low-priced, the market has taken off.
“Now any young emerging artist that’s halfway good -- at the night of the opening, the show is already sold out,” he said.
Editing by Megan Goldin