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    Japanese Profit in Art Sale 4/23/99
by Kay Itoi
Fukuoaka City Bank
San Francisco MoMA
Jasper Johns
0 Through 9
Canal City Hakata
Tsukasa Shishima
The sale of 10 contemporary artworks to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art earlier this month was the work of Tsukasa Shishima, president of the Fukuoka City Bank and a top art collector for 30 years. (Despite being the subject of a strict confidentiality agreement, news of the deal quickly leaked out and was first reported in New York by Carol Vogel in the New York Times.) The art sale is all the more surprising to Japanese observers because Shishima managed a profit of at least $17 million on the deal.

Japanese collectors were big players in the 1980s art boom. Since the country's "bubble" economy burst in 1991, however, art has been flooding out of the country. Since many of the original buyers are now in financial trouble, they've had to sell at a loss -- sometimes a huge loss.

The ten Fukuoka works are 0 Through 9 (1960) by Jasper Johns, Figure With Two Owls: Study for Velazquez (1983) by Francis Bacon, Phyllis (1984) by Chuck Close, a Calder mobile, and paintings by Yves Klein, Fernand Léger, Roy Lichtenstein, Ad Reinhardt, Frank Stella and Andy Warhol. While the deal was reported in the United States to be worth about $60 million, the Fukuoka City Bank has resolutely declined to comment. A Japanese source has told that the actual sale amount is smaller, closer to $50 million. Shishima made a profit of somewhere between $17 million and $25 million, since he bought most of the 10 works before art prices skyrocketed.

Shishima, 73, is one of the most prominent businessmen in Kyushu, a southern main island of Japan, where Fukuoka is a political, commercial and cultural center. Over the years he has amassed a collection of approximately 250 works, ranging from an 1899 Picasso to a 1996 Nam Jun Paik video installation. (Paik's huge installation features 180 television monitors and is prominently sited in the lobby of Canal City Hakata, a $730-million complex which was developed by Fukuoka Real Estate and includes a hotel, a 13-screen cineplex and a shopping center.)

The Shishima Collection, as it is known, is officially the property of Fukuoka Real Estate, an affiliate of the Fukuoka City Bank (the bank itself also holds title to some of the works). The Fukuoka City Bank is also known to be the main bank of Shigeki Kameyama, a dealer and one of Japan's famed contemporary art collectors.

Several years ago Fukuoka City Bank began experiencing financial problems, and the fate of Shishima's art collection became a subject of great interest to journalists and art-world observers. Shishima says that the sale to the San Francisco Museum resulted from the eagerness of museum officials, whose courtship included several visits and a promise of a special museum gallery devoted to his collection. Although the bank reported a loss of 34 billion yen ($283 million) in the fiscal year that ended March 1999, he insists that the art sale wasn't designed to help clear the bank's debt.

A plan to establish a museum within Canal City Hakata to showcase Shishima's art has been postponed due to the bank's financial difficulties. "If and when we completely give up the museum project," Shishima told Japanese reporters, "We might sell a significant portion of the collection."

Note to dealers, museums and collectors: Get your checkbooks ready!

KAY ITOI is a Tokyo-based journalist who writes about art, technology and lifestyle.