Illustration of the "The Great Wave of Kangawa" by Katsushika Hokusai

Hokusai’s ‘Great Wave’ sails past auction estimate at Christie’s

Katsushika Hokusai’s iconic ukiyo-e woodblock print, Under the Great Well of the Great Wave off Kanagawa, far surpassed its estimate of $500,000-700,000 in a sale at Christie’s New York last week, selling for $2.8 million. The sale marks a new high record for the print.

Hokusai’s print is part of a series made by the artist in the 1830s, called Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji.It shows three fishing boats with tiny figures facing a huge tsunami as they head for Tokyo, with Mount Fuji in the background. The artist was already in his 70s when he made the group of woodblock prints, which were successful, although relatively cheap, at the time. In fact, it was not until later in the century that this particular print became so well-known. Sarah Thompson, curator of Japanese Art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston explained that “when it was first published in Japan, of course people like it, but they liked all the prints in the series. We don’t have any evidence that that one was particularly admired. It seems to have risen to the top probably in the 1890s in France. That was where people really started talking about it and singing its praises and then it kind of snowballed and continues to the present day.”

Given the huge amount of money the print sold for last week, you could easily think that only a few copies of it exists. In fact, it is not clear how many survive and the British Museum in London has three original copies in their collection. Researcher Capucine Korenberg, who wrote about the series for the British Museum’s website, explained that printmakers “would have produced prints until the woodblocks literally wore out” and that this may mean as many as 8,000 prints of the composition were made. Korenberg has only been able to find evidence of 111 versions surviving, however. Some copies of the print are more valuable than others. Early versions have sharper lines as the woodblock had not worn out at all at the time they were made, and a very faint outline of a cloud can be seen against a pink sky in these versions. The print at Christie’s had these indicators, suggesting it was an early version and making it even more desirable. A thirteen-minute bidding battle ensued for the print, with six bidders fighting over it before it went to an anonymous telephone bidder. In 2021, another version sold for $1.6 million, over ten times its pre-sale low estimate. An exhibition titled ‘Hokusai: Inspiration and Influence’ opens this week at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where an entire room is dedicated to the iconic Great Wave, attesting to its enduring appeal to collectors and museum-goers. Thompson explains how the print is relatable to us today, saying that, “people see it used in a metaphorical way with reference to manmade disasters, climate change. You also often see a kind of emotional interpretation, feelings of being overwhelmed.”

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