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report from tokyo

by Kay Itoi  

The Sezon Museum


The Yasuda Kasai

The Toyota
Municipal Museum

The Toyota
Municipal Museum

Gustav Klimt
Portrait of Eugenia


Egon Schiele
Portrait of Karl



$9 million

Castelli director
Morgan Spangle


Masami Shiraishi

Halloween pumpkin

Tomio Koyama

Masataka Hayakawa

Takayuki Ishii

Hidenori Ota

Gallery Koyanagi
   Sezon Museum to Close
With the declining stock market, the weakening yen, major banks going out of business and thousands of people getting laid off, there just is not much cheerful news from Japan. The Japanese art world, too, has had its share of sad tidings, notably the recent announcement of plans to close Sezon Museum of Art in February 1999.

The museum, established in 1975 in Tokyo's Seibu Department Store, is one of the country's more respected contemporary art venues. It has been unusually cutting-edge for a Japanese retailer-owned museum, featuring exhibitions of Joseph Beuys and Anselm Kiefer. And nobody else had the nerve to bring Gilbert & George to Japan until Sezon did last September.

The museum is sponsored by the Sezon Group, whose core companies are the department store, the Seiyu supermarket chain and Credit Saison loan company. A prominent player in the art market from 1988 to 1994, Sezon hosted print auctions in partnership with Sotheby's in Tokyo, and was a buyer at auctions in New York and London salesrooms. In 1989, Credit Saison launched Japan's first art-secured loan program in partnership with Fuji Bank.

For the past several years, Sezon has faced increasing financial difficulties, and as a consequence is moving to reduce its art-related operations. The Sezon Museum-sponsored Yasui Award, which has for four decades honored new figurative painters in memory of the artist Sotaro Yasui, will also be discontinued.

More Trouble for Yasuda's "Sunflowers"
If there is such a thing as a tenth-year curse, maybe that's the problem with Tokyo's Yasuda Fire & Marine Insurance Company purchase, ten years ago, of van Gogh's Sunflowers at Christie's London for $40.3 million. Since early this year, European experts have been calling the painting one of the world's most expensive fakes. The allegations have been like a birthmark on fair skin -- impossible to rub off, no matter how hard you try.

In July, art historian Martin Bailey wrote in the London-based Art Newspaper that dozens of works attributed to van Gogh, including Yasuda's Sunflowers, could be fakes. The French newspaper Le Figaro followed suit in publicizing questions of the painting's authenticity.

Every time such an article appeared, Yasuda would repeat its conviction that the work is authentic. But imagine how the company officers must feel. Christie's would have rescinded the sale and returned Yasuda's money if the work had been proven fake within five years of the sale. But it has been ten years.

So the Yasuda people heaved a sigh of relief when Louis van Tilborgh, chief curator of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, told Japanese reporters that the painting is "an original without any doubt." He was in Tokyo for an opening of an exhibition at Yasuda's museum, where Sunflowers has been on view. "Mr. Tilborgh knows better than anybody else in the world," a Yasuda spokesman triumphantly said.

But that relief was short-lived. The British Sunday Times subsequently reported that Sunflowers may be a fake, this time citing investigations by expert Geraldine Norman.

Now the Japanese are getting suspicious. Why is Yasuda's Sunflowers repeatedly being attacked in the west? "There remains resentment against Japanese speculative art buying in the western art world," an art historian told the Sunday Mainichi weekly. An art dealer said to Weekly Shincho, "Western collectors are now buying back the masterpieces the Japanese had imported. I wonder if somebody is trying to get a better price [on Sunflowers] by using the bad publicity." This conspiracy theory seems to be gaining popularity -- or are the Japanese only now waking up to reality?

Earlier this year, NHK, Japan's public broadcasting service, aired a controversial documentary on the expensive paintings brought into the country during the '80s art-shopping spree, which Yasuda kicked off with the purchase of Sunflowers. On the program, the Swiss dealer Ernst Beyeler declared, in essence, that it's been great for him because he is now buying back hundreds of those paintings -- that he said "belong to Europe" -- for great prices (though he did not refer to Sunflowers). The report shocked the Japanese audience, and was among the most talked-about pieces of television journalism this year. And it is a fact that Sunflowers is the only high-profile art work bought during the boom that still remains with the original Japanese buyer.

Toyota Municipal Museum: Japan's Richest
Ask any Japanese dealer which is the richest Japanese public museum, and the answer is guaranteed to be the Toyota Municipal Museum of Art. The envy of curators at other art institutions, the museum was opened in 1995 by the city of Toyota, headquarters of the mighty Toyota Motor Company. The city enjoys substantial tax revenues, as well as generous donations to its cultural institutions, thanks to the giant automaker.

Since the auto industry is so important to the city, the museum also focuses industrial design. Museum director Mitsuhiko Tera is a former designer.

The Toyota Municipal Museum' s elegant, $122.5-million building is designed by the Harvard-educated architect Yoshio Taniguchi, who has just been chosen to reshape the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Complete with eleven spacious galleries, a Japanese garden and a tea ceremony room, the Toyota facility is considered by many to be the best museum architecture in the country.

By now, the museum has collected some 1,800 artworks. Among them are some pricey paintings, including Klimt's Portrait of Eugenia Primavesi (1913-14), bought in 1991 for about $13.8 million; Magritte's Attempting the Impossible (1928), purchased in 1993 for $4.3 million; and a pair of Schiele oils, Portrait of Karl Grünwald (1917) for $8.2 million and Vildnis Leopold Czihdczek (1907) for $545,900, both purchased in 1994. The two Schieles are the only paintings by the artist in a Japanese museum.

Last summer, Toyota Motor gave 300 million yen ($2.4 million) to the museum, which promptly bought Miro's Composition (1933) for $1.7 million, Tanguy's Les Cloches Perdues (1929) for $536,800 and an installation work by English sculptor Tony Cragg titled African Culture Myth (1984) for $130,400.

Some wonder if the museum has not been a bit careless with its money. The Magritte painting, bought for $4.3 million in 1993, sold for $1.4 million at Sotheby's London in 1989. The politicians have been complaining, too. Last year, one pointed out that Klimt's Portrait of Eugenia Primavesi, which the city bought from an Osaka art dealer for $13.8 million in 1991, had been sold at Sotheby's New York only four years earlier -- for $3.9 million. The museum explained that it "had to have the work," and that seems to have been the end of the discussion.

The Baku Art Theft Mystery Man
It was one of the strangest art crimes of the year. In September, a Japanese man was arrested in New York City for trying to sell 12 allegedly stolen drawings by such artists as Rembrandt, Dürer, and Annibale Carracci, said to be worth $10 million. The case attracted attention in Japan because the 60-year-old culprit, Masatsugu Koga, has a record here as a shady operator.

According to authorities, the works were first looted by Soviet troops from a museum in Bremen, Germany, after World War II. They next turned up in a 1993 exhibition at the National Museum of Baku, Azerbaijan. The museum said the drawings had been purchased by the KGB in 1947. But before Bremen officials had a chance to inquire, the drawings were stolen again by unknown parties.

They resurfaced last April in the hands of Koga. He approached Tokyo's German Embassy with an offer to sell them for $12 million (the price was later dropped to $6 million). He claimed that his family had long owned the works, but the embassy officials knew better. A Bremen curator went to see him and the drawings in the Grand Hyatt in Manhattan, where the pieces had been hidden, accompanied by a U.S. Custom Service agent. As part of the case, Natavan Aleskerova, a respected female prosecutor in Azerbaijan, was arrested in October as an accomplice.

What role they each played is still unclear, and Japanese observers are busy speculating. Focus magazine suggested that the Russian Mafia was involved. Weekly Bunshun mentioned Koga's former close ties to the KGB. Koga's mother was Russian, and Koga worked as a Russian translator for Tokai University in the 1970s.

In 1984, Koga was arrested after he took $2.7 million in bribes from 12 families, promising the university would admit their children. It was a huge scandal in Japan at the time -- and nobody expected him to return to the spotlight this way. He faces up to ten years in prison when he is sentenced in New York District Court on Jan. 21.

Tokyo's "Snob" Art Fair
This fall, the Japan Fine Arts Dealers' League launched a new art fair at the city's new $1.6 billion Tokyo International Forum building, Nov. 30-Dec. 3. Called the Tokyo International Art Festival (TIaS), the fair was dismissed as the "snob art fair" by some dealers who weren't invited to participate. But despite the ill will, the fair was fun to visit and, while by no means profitable, seemed fun for dealers who took part.

Chieko Hasegawa, president of the League and vice president of the well-established Galerie Nichido (as well as wife of Nichido president Tokushichi Hasegawa), had stressed that the TIaS would be "totally different from any of the previous efforts at art fairs in Japan." Particularly, she said, "We will accept only top galleries." As a result, the fair's exhibitors included 56 Japanese galleries (most of them either current or former members of the league) and 20 foreign dealers, among them seven from New York (Acquavella, Dominique Haim Chanin, James Goodman, Castelli, Feigen, Beadleston and PaceWildenstein).

Considering Japanese taste, wares at the fair were largely modern and Impressionist art. Picasso's Still Life with Red Bull's Head and Seated Woman in an Armchair, at Acquavella and Richard Gray, respectively, were very popular with visitors. London's Lefevre Gallery featured Monet's Effet deprintemps a Giverny and Matisse's Face in the Flowers. Galerie Hopkins Thomas from Paris brought Renoir's Portrait de Melle Zuzanne Adam and Foujita's Flea Market, as well as a small Rouault oil and a Monet pastel.

The art fair was designed as "an exhibition" rather than a commercial fair (and over 40 Japanese corporations agreed to sponsor it), which means that dealers were asked not to attach a price tag to each artwork on display. Each gallery had a price list handy, however, and did not hesitate to discuss business on the spot. For Virgin and Child by Rubens, Agnew's from London had a price of $9 million.

Some 60,000 visitors showed up during the five-day fair, which was surprising, given that an average Japanese goes to an art museum only once every two years. "I've been to the art fairs in L.A., Paris and Chicago, but have never seen such big crowds," said Leo Castelli director Morgan Spangle. "This is a very expensive, nice building," adds Shugo Satani, of Tokyo's Satani Gallery. "People are here to look at a nice art exhibition, and it's easy to walk around and stay long in here -- the lighting is expensive and nice, too."

Most American galleries brought contemporary works. Richard Gray exhibited a large Lichtenstein canvas titled River through the Woods, while PaceWildenstein brought a Noguchi sculpture. And dubbed the "bravest of all" by a Japanese dealer was Leo Castelli, which had four fluorescent lights installation works by Dan Flavin. "Since this was proposed as a non-commercial venture, we thought we'd bring something the Japanese audience is less familiar with," said Spangle.

Masami Shiraishi, of Shiraishi Contemporary Art, leader of the Nippon International Contemporary Art Fair, the other remaining Japanese art fairs (it was held in March this year and plans to have another in March 1998), hailed the effort. "Having a big event like this, which isn't easy to do, helps overseas people look at the Japanese market," he says. He acknowledges that there may be talks of merging the two art fairs into one. But the TIaS organizers, who launched it to mark the League's 40th anniversary, do not have immediate plans for another one.

"Kid Dealers" in "Mini" Fair
After the posh TIaS closed, still another group of Japanese dealers opened the Daikanyama Art Fair, Nov. 20-24, marking the 30th anniversary of the Daikanyama Hillside Terrace, one of the city's trendiest shopping complexes. Though in no way comparable to the TIaS, it gave art lovers a chance to sample the offerings of Tokyo's cutting edge galleries. It was organized by Fram Kitagawa, a veteran dealer who owns the Art Front Gallery in Daikanyama.

Many of the ten exhibitors at the Daikanyama fair are so-called "kid dealers," adventurous 30-somethings who opened their galleries only a few years ago. Though suffering from lack of funds, they are newsmakers in the generally dull and depressed market. Remember these names:

Tomio Koyama, head of Tomio Koyama Gallery, represents artists like Yoshitomo Nara and Takashi Murakami, who are inspired by Japanese subculture and anime. He brought Paul McCarthy to Japan last year.

Masataka Hayakawa of Masataka Hayakawa Gallery represents young Japanese artists, such as Katsuya Komagata, as well as the edgy German-born artist Maria Eichhorn and the Brazilian artist who calls himself Anonymous.

Takayuki Ishii, of Taka Ishii Gallery, focuses on photographers and represents Larry Clark in Japan. He showed Raymond Pettibon last year.

Hidenori Ota of Ota Fine Arts represents Yayoi Kusama in Japan. He has exhibited works by Dennis Oppenheim and Vito Acconci, and will show Dan Flavin in 1998.

Atsuko Koyanagi, director of Gallery Koyanagi, represents Mariko Mori and Hiroshi Sugimoto in Japan. Recently Koyanagi showed Nobuyoshi Araki and Tony Oursler.

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