I’ve combined two posts here because they are related. To start with I’d like to look at the relationships between dealer, artwork, value and marketplace. Let’s start with the dealer. As in every walk of life, no two dealers or galleries are the same, but it’s a fair guess that most dealers love the work that they’re involved with. It’s also true to say that most dealers need to make a living. What a gallery chooses to stock and the prices it sets are based on two things, the art and the marketplace. Dealers tend to specialise, more often than not in what they know about and what they love. Prices are set by consensus which is all to do with rarity and the long term opinions of art historians, collectors, and auction houses… and there you have it; dealers sell what they know and love at prices set by an historically unhealthy relationship between connoisseurs and sale-rooms. Realistically, there’s little movement in prices between dealers since consensus, (what everyone agrees is an artists’s ‘price’) is long term and something that everyone has little choice but to abide by.
As a gallery we choose to specialise in Utagawa artists. Some artists are too expensive to be creative with and some artists have a value placed upon them which makes the price not a true reflection of the worth of individual pieces. This is true of contemporary, modern and antique art, and applies to artists whose very name is famous and where their work has attracted what you might call a fetishistic value. Some artists are outstanding in this field… Picasso or Andy Warhol spring to mind; Picasso famously signing napkins at restaurants in exchange for expensive meals.
In the field of Japanese woodblock prints, Sharuko is unaffordable perhaps because of rarity rather than fame; more obviously, Hokusai and Hiroshige are artists whose less competent work is massively overvalued. Hiroshige, unlike Sharuko, had a prodigious output of 8,000 or more separate designs, each reproduced thousands of times and for sale at sixteen mon – the cost of a bowl of noodles. Even so and despite the fragility of disposable items over so many years, pretty much anything by Hiroshige is always going to be priced in excess of $500 regardless of the design and condition.
And there, for me, is the problem. Hiroshige drew some fine and groundbreaking landscapes and remains a giant of 19th century ukiyo-e… but a great deal of his output was overly commercial and some of it was very ordinary. When an artist’s name becomes synonymous with a genre or a movement, as has Hiroshige’s, all of his work, regardless of quality has currency and that’s bad for art and in the end, bad for the artist. Of course it would be naive to imagine that dealerships and sale-rooms have anything much beyond finance at heart; nevertheless it is in everyone’s interests to remain critical not just of the artistic merit of each piece but also the condition, originality, importance and subject matter as well. Without critical considerations the artist’s work becomes quite literally a ghost currency – prone to all the checks and balances of stocks and shares rather than the accumulated consensus of an informed, aesthetic market.
And here’s the problem with Hiroshige for me, a dealer. I like his late work a lot. The Vertical Tokaido (Tokaido Gojusan Tsugi Meisho Dzuye) series and especially the 100 views of Edo (Meisho Yedo Hiakkei) published (some of it posthumously) in 1858, the year of his death. These series, (some of the 100 views were completed by Hiroshige the II) are not as highly regarded as say the original 1832, 53 Stations of the Tokaido Road. This series, the groundbreaking work of his career, is widely credited as being genre forming and setting new standards in landscape art – it is interesting but not great, fascinating but not so original or ground-breaking since Hokusai had already commemorated the route with his own 53 Stations of the Tokaido Road as far back as 1810. Many dealers and salerooms forget the art history, seduced by reputation or hearsay and hence there is a glass floor to the Hoeido Tokaido that it does not, frankly merit. Hiroshige did as many as thirty separate Tokaido series some of which are pot-boilers at best. It is vitally important for the profession to remain vigilant when pricing, discussing and valuing an artist’s output in order that from the outside at the very least, his estimation does not appear overblown or inflated.
I mentioned earlier that fluctuations in an artist’s fortunes can sometimes mirror more the financial markets than the art market and there is a noticeable sluggishness in the prices of poorer quality works by Hiroshige in the last few years. Collectors should always be careful with such artists. The basic rule of thumb applies; always look at the condition of the piece and regardless of what is considered important or not ask yourself what the piece says to you, the buyer. In difficult times such as these it is perhaps wiser to speculate on less obvious pieces with lower prices or pieces that you are drawn to and allow the marketplace to adjust when it comes to the big names.
Toshidama Gallery is offering two fine Hiroshige from the Jinbutso Series of 1852 sometimes known as the Figure Tokaido. This is a lovely series, reasonably priced and the two prints we are selling are in fine condition.