A small Kusama 'Pumpkin' painting nets US$2.3m in Hong Kong, a 3.3-times increase in 6 years

One of the most influential female artists in the world, Yayoi Kusuma has had a moment at auction in recent years, and demand for her works appears to show no signs of abating during this Hong Kong Spring auction week. 

Following a solid performance at Sotheby's evening sale, today (7 April), a rare Red Pumpkin (1989) by the artist sold for more than double its low estimate at Poly Auction Hong Kong, making HK$18 million (US$2.3 million) with premium. 

Measuring 38 x 45.5 cm, the five-color painting features the Queen of Polka Dots' iconic motif with "legs" split. It was last auctioned in 2018 by the same auction house for HK$5.3 million; the current result represents a more-than-3.3 times increase in value over six years. 

Red Pumpkin hammered for HK$15 million

Lot 113 | Yayoi Kusama (b. 1929) | Red Pumpkin, Acrylic on canvas
Painted in 1989
38 x 45.5 cm
Provenance (Consolidated by The Value):

  • Ravenel Taipei, 2 December 2012, Lot 728 (Sold: NT$3,120,000)
  • Poly Auction Hong Kong, 30 September 2018, Lot 152 (Sold: HK$5,310,000)
  • Acquired from the above sale by the present owner

Estimate: HK$7,500,000 - 8,500,000
Hammer Price: HK$15,000,000
Sold: HK$18,000,000 (US$2.3 million)

Now in her nineties, Yayoi Kusama is internationally recognized for polka dots, giant spotted pumpkin sculptures and infinity mirror rooms. 

Interest in the artist was boosted to a new high last year when her second collaboration with Louis Vuitton went viral on social media; in Hong Kong, the city was awash with her signature polka dots as her blockbuster retrospective opened at Hong Kong’s M+ Museum.

The Japanese trailblazer has kept up her momentum at auction in recent years, especially in Hong Kong, with prices of her artworks surging significantly. Take the present Red Pumpkin (1989) for example; it has been auctioned three times in the past two decades: the first in 2012 for HK$832,000 at Ravenel Taipei, the second in 2018 for HK$5.31 million, and now in 2024 for HK$18 million. 

Yayoi Kusama had her second collaboration with Louis Vuitton last year

There were two other similar red pumpkin paintings hitting the auction block last year, including a red-and-white PUMPKIN [FBAN] (2013) and a red-and-black Pumpkin (2000), both offered at Christie's Hong Kong. 

The former measures 73 x 90.8 cm and fetched HK$46.3 million; the latter measures 130.3 x 161.5 cm and sold for HK$40.3 million.

The present work could said to have outperformed those two works if taking only size, among the many factors determining a painting's value, into account, with a price per cm² of HK$10,410:

  • PUMPKIN [FBAN] | 130.3 x 161.5 cm | Sold: HK$46,355,000, price per cm²: HK$2,202
  • Pumpkin | 73 x 90.8 cm | Sold: HK$40,305,000, price per cm²: HK$6,080

PUMPKIN [FBAN] | 130.3 x 161.5 cm | Sold: HK$46,355,000

Pumpkin | 73 x 90.8 cm | Sold: HK$40,305,000

The Red Pumpkin offered by Poly Auction Hong Kong dates back to 1989. This particular year holds significant meaning for Kusama, as it marked her first international retrospective exhibition at the New York Contemporary Art Center, signifying a milestone in her return to the global art scene.

Distinguishing itself from her other pumpkin artworks, this pumpkin showcases the iconic pumpkin adorned with Kusama's trademark repetition of dots with the rare use of five colors.

This pumpkin appears more personified and animated than others that are more portrayed as typical still life, with its two split "legs" seemingly allowing the pumpkin to dance towards the viewer.

Among all the personified pumpkin artworks that can be traced, only one other piece shares the same dimensions as this one. This artwork directly reflects and amplifies the significance of the pumpkin residing in Kusama's heart – the same pumpkin she encountered during her childhood, which became the central inspiration for her artistic creations. 

Yayoi Kusama in her childhood years

The artist's deep connection with pumpkins can be traced back to her vivid childhood hallucinations. She was born in 1929 in Matsumoto City, Nagano Prefecture, Japan, into a well-to-do family that operated a plant nursery. During her early years, Kusama experienced hallucinations involving everyday plants, particularly pumpkins and flowers.

She recollects, “I first saw pumpkins when I was at elementary school; at that time, my grandfather had taken me to a seed collection field ... and it was there I saw a pumpkin as big as a person's head, and it animatedly started to talk to me.”

In the war years and after, she lived off of pumpkins, consuming so many that they made her sick. Yet, the vegetable eventually became the beloved subject of her art, as she explains: "I love pumpkins. They hold a spiritual space from my childhood, bringing a poetic sense of peace and tranquillity to my heart. Pumpkins speak to me, emanating a solemn and sacred spiritual state. They embody the source of joy in life that is shared by all humanity. That's why I continue to create pumpkins."

Yayoi Kusama's Red Pumpkin was offered at Poly Auction Hong Kong's Modern and Contemporary Art Evening Sale, which saw 54 out of the 59 lots on offer sell and garnered HK$65.7 million with a sell-through rate of 91.5%. 

The second and third most expensive lots both went to Japanese art, including Yoshitomo Nara's teacup sculpture and Tsuguharu Foujita's Roses in a Vase

Lot 116 | Yoshitomo Nara (b. 1959) | Cup Kids, Acrylic and lacquer on FRP sculpture
Executed in 1995
95 x 95 x 105 cm

  • Blum & Poe Gallery, Los Angeles, USA
  • Private Collection, USA
  • Private Collection, Asia

Estimate: HK$6,000,000 - 8,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$5,900,000
Sold: HK$7,080,000

Lot 145 | Léonard Tsuguharu Foujita (1886-1968) | Roses in a Vase, Oil on canvas
Painted in 1952
41.7 x 33.2 cm

  • Galerie Nichido, Tokyo, Japan
  • Acquired from the above by the present owner\

Estimate: HK$3,600,000 - 5,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$3,200,000
Sold: HK$3,840,000

Auction Details:

Auction House: Poly Auction Hong Kong
Sale: Modern and Contemporary Art
Date: 7 April 2024
Number of Lots: 60
Sold: 55
Unsold: 5
Sale Rate: 91.5%
Sale Total: HK$65,788,800