Ben Hills

From the street, Osaka’s Lake finance company is just another anonymous glass-and-concrete office building. There is no hint that in its basement is stored what was, just a few years ago, one of the most expensive works of art in the world.

There, protected by steel vaults and guarded by security men who are now its only audience, sits Picasso’s Les Noces de Pierrette (Wedding of Pierrette), a striking painting which at the time of its sale in 1989 brought 300 million francs ($63 million).

It would be stretching it a bit to say, as they like to in the auction catalogues, that it was once the property of a gentleman. Tomonori Tsurumaki, who bought the picture with a bid over a satellite link with an auction house in Paris, was more your high-flying Japanese entrepreneur … sort of an Alan Bond with an extra nought or two.

Mr Tsurumaki, now 51, was a high-school dropout who made a paper fortune punting on real estate, shares, and horse-racing during the go-go years of the 1980s. Until he made headlines with his Picasso purchase, he was best-known for his plans to put Japan on the world Formula One racing map by building a circuit on the southern island of Kyushu.

But just three years later – like Alan Bond before him – Mr Tsurumaki and reality converged with a sickening thud. He was declared bankrupt with debts of $118 million … and the Picasso was repossessed by the Lake company, a large Japanese non-bank, which had lent him the money to buy it. And there, for the past year or so, it has sat. “They just don’t know what to do with it,” says Takashi Seki, president of the Tokyo auction-house Est-Ouest, “Art prices have fallen 80 or 90 per cent since then … if they try to sell it they will take a massive loss.”

The story of Les Noces de Pierrette is a microcosm of what happened during the boom and bust of the Japanese art market – arguably the greatest ramp since the South Sea Bubble – when prices doubled and redoubled and redoubled again as Tokyo became a black hole into which the world’s greatest art was sucked.

Rembrandts, Renoirs, Monets, Manets, Van Goghs – you name it, the Japanese had to have it, especially if it was one of the much-admired French Impressionists. Price was no object.

In the four years to the peak of the bubble in 1990, Japan imported an astounding $19 billion worth of art. What drove the buying spree, says Mr Seki, was debt. For the first time, lenders in Japan – where land has always been the principal repository of wealth – were prepared to accept art as security.

Institutions like Lake began to promote aggressively what became known as”work-of-art mortgages”. But when the bubble burst, the banks called in their security and suddenly there were embarrassing pale patches on the boardroom -and bedroom – walls of Japan’s richest tycoons.

Take the two paintings which are still the most expensive ever sold: Van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr Gachet, and the equally famous Renoir Au Moulin de la Galette. These were bought together, at the peak of the boom, for $240 million, a price that staggered even the boldest art speculators.

The purchaser was one Ryoei Saito, 77, then the billionaire chairman of the controversial Daishowa paper manufacturing company. Mr Saito promptly outraged the art world by declaring that when he died he would have the paintings cremated along with his body – so that his heirs would not have to pay billions of yen in death duties.

As it turned out, he never got the chance. With his company teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, Mr Saito was deposed and when last seen was being driven into a police station with his head buried in his arms to be charged with bribery and corruption. The paintings have never been seen publicly since, and rumour has it they are also in a bank vault.

A survey by the Nikkei news organisation of just five of Japan’s scores of non-bank financial institutions found that they were sitting on a total of$1.5 billion-worth of confiscated art. The real total is anyone’s guess – the banks certainly aren’t owning up.

Mr Seki says that since the spring of 1990 – when at one auction Est-Ouest sold a Monet and a work by the Japanese/French painter Leonardo Fujita in an auction that topped $28 million – prices have now contracted to one eighth or one tenth of what they were. Est-Ouest, incidentally, is one of the great survivors in the cut-throat Tokyo art world – five or six auction houses have gone out of business in the past few years, along with scores of art galleries which “sprang up like bamboo shoots in the spring” during the boom.

The other day, at its first auction of 1994, it offered an eclectic collection of French art deco glassware, oriental silk screens, and some European paintings. In spite of the modest reserves (a Duffy for $73,000, a Utrillo for $107,000) and the return of some French dealers to the market, there was only a 65 per cent clearance, and the auction grossed a little over$2 million.

At these prices, says Mr Seki, the banks cannot afford to put their art treasures back on the market. “They are ashamed of what has happened, and also afraid that if they try to sell the paintings they will depress the market even further,” he says. “Basically, they just don’t want to have anything to do with them.”

As well as the paintings hidden in the bank vaults, a lot of the art which was vacuumed up by Japan has finished up in private collections, some of them in the oddest of places. The public museums and art galleries didn’t get much of a look-in during the boom years.

For instance, if you want to see one of the magnificent Van Gogh sunflower paintings – the work which really started the auction madness back in 1987 -you have to catch a high-speed lift to the 42nd floor of the Yasuda Fire and Marine Insurance Company.

There, high above the smog-shrouded skyscrapers of Shinjuku, flanked by two Renoirs, a Gauguin and a Cezanne – amid a highly-eccentric collection that also includes several dozen works by Grandma Moses – reposes the painting which was also, in its time, the most expensive ever sold.

It was the auction of Sunflowers, for Pound 24.75 million in 1987 ($52.3 million), that inspired Alan Bond to bid a couple of million more for his Irises canvas, since rescued for a fraction of that price and residing in the J. Paul Getty museum in Malibu, California.

Bond measured his Van Gogh after he bought it and is said to have boasted: “Mine’s bigger.” Even further off any art map you ever heard of, is the Tokyo Fuji Art Museum, an hour out of town in the gritty suburb of Hachiyoji, not far from a United States air base and the Tokyo fire brigade headquarters. In spite of this unprepossessing location, the museum owns the most impressive collection of European art in Japan, if not all of Asia.

The fabulous paintings are the property of a Buddhist sect, Sokka Gakkai, whose current guru – Daisaku Ikeda – raised several hundred million dollars from his followers to amass a collection so vast that less than a tenth of it can be put on display at any one time.

The centre-pieces are two Renoir portraits, the most controversial works of art purchased in Japan during the boom. The acquisition of these paintings, for a total of $47 million, led to a year-long international police chase and still-unresolved charges of fraud.

Arrayed around is a veritable history of European art – from Veronese, Bellini and Ghirlandaio, to the only Goya in Japan, works by Cezanne, Morisot and Caillebotte and Manet’s masterpiece, the Promenade.

Unfortunately, the day I visited, one of the Renoirs, a Pissarro, a Utrillo, a Sisley, and God knows how many other masterworks, were stored in the cellar because there was not enough room to hang them.

Like hundreds of other great paintings – a large part of the Western world’s art heritage, which was devoured by Japanese speculators – it may be years, decades even, before they are seen again by the public.

Publishing Info

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Pub date: Saturday 12 March 1994
Edition: Late
Section: Spectrum
Sub section:
Page: 4
Word count: 1455
1. Van Gogh’s Sunflowers … inspired Alan Bond.
2. Van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr Gachet … in bank vault?
3. Picasso’s Les Noces de Pierrette …. security men are its only audience.