Asia week is over, the deluge of auctions and private sales has concluded, and the dust is settling on a new reality - Hokusai’s Under the Wave off Kanagawa, better known as the Great Wave, sold for $2.75M at Christie’s, New York, a new world record price. While staggering in its magnitude, it is not all that surprising. There are hundreds of thousands of works of art in the world, but precious few ever achieve the fame required to be considered household names. Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Vincent Van Gogh’s The Starry Night, Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with A Pearl Earring, and Hokusai’s Great Wave belong to this category of world-famous masterpieces. However, of these, not only is the Great Wave among the most ubiquitous but it is also the only one which can be privately owned.
When the Great Wave was originally produced in c. 1831, a standard, single sheet print had a fixed price at 16 mon (roughly $4 today, the equivalent of a double serving of noodles). If the maximum number of prints were pulled before the blocks needed to be re-carved, it is possible 8000 impressions of the Great Wave were originally produced. However, before we jump forward in time, we must consider that today, it's not so much a question of "how many were made?" but "how many have survived?"
Given the ephemeral nature of woodblock prints even if 8000 Great Waves were originally produced it is likely less than 25% of those prints would have survived past their first few years of ownership and of these only another 25% would have survived until today. Accordingly, the number of extant copies can be assumed to be fewer than 500, with even fewer still in collectible condition. Today, roughly 100 Great Waves are accounted for in public collections with an equal number likely in private collections. It is therefore safe to assume there are less than 250 collectable copies of the Great Wave today.
Looking at 38 public sales of the Great Waves over the last 30 years shows that the price of the Great Wave has exponentially increased with each decade.
- -In the 1990s Hokusai’s Great Wave sold for an average price of $33,793.
- -In the 2000s Hokusai’s Great Wave sold for an average price of $85,144.
- -In the 2010s Hokusai’s Great Wave sold for an average price of $307,741.
- -In the 2020s, including the recent world record sale, Hokusai’s Great Wave has sold for an average price of $924,271.
In essence, with each decade there are fewer extant prints on the market and considerably more demand for those prints. Based upon an average value of $924,271 and assuming there are 250 Great Waves in existence, then the value of the Great Waves if it was a one-of-a-kind work of art would be over $230,000,000–firmly positioning it as one of the top 10 most expensive works of art alongside Leonardo Da Vinci’s Salvatore Mundi ($450M), Willem de Kooning’s Interchange ($300M), Paul Cezanne’s The Card Players ($250M), Paul Gauguin’s Nafea Faa Ipoipo ($210M), Jackson Pollock’s Number 17A ($200M), Mark Rothko’s No. 6. ($186M), Gustav Klimt’s Water Serpent II ($183.3M), Rembrandt van Rijn’s Portraits of Maerten Soolmans and Oopjen Coppit ($180M), and Pablo Picasso’s Les Femmes d’Alger ($179.3M).
Given the Great Wave’s prominence as one of the most iconic works in art history, $924,271 seems to be a reasonable baseline valuation from which the price of an individual impression can fluctuate up or down. Simply put, not all impressions were created equal and furthermore the years have been kinder to some more than others.
The Great Wave sold at Christie’s this March was a very fine print, but not perfect. It had a sharp early impression with the rear peak of Mount Fuji visible. It had strong color with the clouds in the background still visible. It had no centerfold and was only slightly trimmed. But the print had been restored and cleaned; there is evidence that the print had at one time been mounted on a backing and the residual glue from this mounting remains clearly visible on the reverse. Christie’s marketed it as one of the top 20 impressions worldwide and I wouldn’t disagree, but I have seen finer impressions come to market.
Which leads to the question, if a top 20 Great Wave sold for $2.75M, what would a top 10, or the finest impression sell for today? Could there be a $5M Great Wave out there waiting to be sold? I wouldn’t be surprised, but that doesn’t make it the “right” price. After all, a single data point doesn’t make or break a market.