Select Page

The Most Expensive Ukiyo-e Art Sold at Auction: A Record-Breaking Journey of “The Great Wave”

Home 5 Ukiyo-e 5 The Most Expensive Ukiyo-e Art Sold at Auction: A Record-Breaking Journey of “The Great Wave”
In a historic auction held at Christie's in New York on March 19, 2023, a rare print of Katsushika Hokusai's iconic "The Great Wave off Kanagawa" shattered records.
Last updated Jan 3, 2024
by Sal

Introduction

In a historic auction held at Christie’s in New York on March 19, 2023, a rare print of Katsushika Hokusai’s iconic “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” shattered records by fetching an astonishing $2.76 million. This masterpiece, measuring 14.6 inches in width, is now officially the most expensive ukiyo-e art ever auctioned, leaving art enthusiasts and collectors in awe.

Under The Swell of The Great Wave Off Kanagawa - Most expensive ukiyo-e art - photo by Christies
Under The Swell of The Great Wave Off Kanagawa – Highest Sale of Ukiyoe – photo by Christies

The Great Wave’s Artistic Legacy

Created in the early 1830s, “The Great Wave” has stood the test of time, depicting three fishing boats navigating tumultuous seas off Japan’s Chiba Prefecture. This woodblock print belongs to the genre known as ukiyo-e, where artists utilized woodblock printing to mass-produce works on paper. Hokusai’s legacy extends beyond the realms of traditional Japanese art, as scholars also hail him as the progenitor of modern manga.

Capucine Korenberg, a researcher for the British Museum, sheds light on the fascinating history of the “Great Wave.” In 2020, she observed that while the exact number of initial prints remains uncertain, collectors did not always highly seek these prints. In the mid-19th century, they were as inexpensive “as about two helpings of noodles.” However, their mystique increases as it is believed that only a fraction of these prints has survived the test of time.

“The Great Wave” is part of Hokusai’s renowned “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji” series, and it has become one of the world’s most widely reproduced images, gracing posters, mugs, shirts, and magnets.

A Medley of Impressions

The record-breaking print auctioned at Christie’s is described in the catalog as a “well-preserved” early print that undeniably ranks “among the 20 or so best impressions surviving today.” Despite initial estimated bids ranging from $500,000 to $700,000, the final sale far exceeded expectations, reaffirming the enduring allure of Hokusai’s masterpieces.

Matthi Forrer, a senior researcher at the National Museum of Ethnology in The Netherlands, emphasized the exceptional nature of the print. “It ranks beyond doubt among the 20 or so best impressions surviving today,” Forrer stated. This recent achievement swiftly eclipsed the previous record, set in 2021 with the sale of another “Great Wave” print for $1.59 million.

The previous owner’s family acquired the print, formally known as “Kanagawa oki nami ura (Under the well of the Great Wave off Kanagawa),” in the early 1900s, and it was previously showcased at the Glyptotek art museum in Copenhagen.

Koishikawa yuki no ashita (Snowy morning at Koishikawa) - Hokusai - photo by Christies
Koishikawa yuki no ashita (Snowy morning at Koishikawa) – Hokusai – photo by Christies

Unveiling Hokusai’s Legacy

Hokusai’s influence extends beyond his famous wave. At the same Christie’s auction, another of his works, “Koishikawa yuki no ashita (Snowy morning at Koishikawa),” made its appearance and fetched over $30,000. The Cabinet Office has hailed Hokusai’s “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji” series as “the most famous work of Japanese art.”

Born in Tokyo’s Sumida district, Hokusai spent the majority of his life creating masterpieces that have left an indelible mark on the art world. Today, the Sumida Hokusai Museum stands as a testament to his legacy.

Beyond the Auction: The Enduring Allure of “The Great Wave”

While the recent auction showcased the pinnacle of Hokusai’s commercial success, it also raises questions about the broader implications of such record-breaking sales. The allure of “The Great Wave” extends beyond its artistic merit; it has become a cultural phenomenon, with its imagery permeating various facets of contemporary life.

The auction’s success prompts reflections on the evolving perceptions of art, the impact of commercialization, and the role of iconic works in shaping cultural narratives. As “The Great Wave” continues to make waves, both in the art market and popular culture, its journey from a humble woodblock print to a multi-million dollar masterpiece stands as a testament to the enduring power of artistic brilliance.

If you’re looking to collect ukiyo-e art, or want to understand what factors influence the price of a ukiyo-e print, be sure to read our guide: Collecting Ukiyo-e Art: A Guide for Beginners

10 Most Expensive Sales of The Great Wave Off Kanagawa at Auction

I researched the data below from Christie’s and Sotheby’s sale records. Bonhams also has high value sales of The Great Wave after the top 10.

TitleArtistAuction HouseDatePrice Sold (USD)
1Under the Well of the Great Wave off KanagawaKatsushika HokusaiChristie’s21 March 20232,760,000
2Under the Well of the Great Wave off KanagawaKatsushika HokusaiChristie’s16 March 20211,590,000
3Under the Well of the Great Wave off KanagawaKatsushika HokusaiChristie’s19 September 20231,260,000
4Under the Well of the Great Wave off KanagawaKatsushika HokusaiChristie’s22 September 20201,110,000
5Under the Well of the Great Wave off KanagawaKatsushika HokusaiChristie’s14 June 2023963,334
(882,200 EUR)
6Under the Well of the Great Wave off KanagawaKatsushika HokusaiSotheby’s27 June 2023962,000
(762,000 GBP)
7Under the Well of the Great Wave off KanagawaKatsushika HokusaiSotheby’s21 July 2022715,933
(567,000 GBP)
8Under the Well of the Great Wave off KanagawaKatsushika HokusaiChristie’s21 September 2021687,500
9Under the Well of the Great Wave off KanagawaKatsushika HokusaiSotheby’s19 December 2023609,550
(482,600 GBP)
10Under the Well of the Great Wave off KanagawaKatsushika HokusaiChristie’s22 March 2022604,800
10 Most Expensive Sales of The Great Wave Off Kanagawa at Auction

Read more:

Original Japanese art prints by The Art of Zen
Original Japanese art prints by The Art of Zen available in our online store

At the Art of Zen we have a wide selection of original Japanese art prints in the ukiyo-e and Japandi style. Some of our best selling work are Mount Fuji wall art and Japandi wall art .

Add some zen to your space with some art from the Art of Zen shop.

Featured image at top of Under the well of The Great Wave Off Kanagawa – Seattle Art Museum – Photo by Chloe Collyer.

0 Comments

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *