Japanese contemporary artist Yoshitomo Nara’s US$10.2 million painting to spearhead Hong Kong auction

The highest valued Japanese artist, Yoshitomo Nara is one of the hottest names in the Asian art market in recent years.

During this Spring season, Sotheby's Hong Kong will auction Nara’s Oddly Cozy painting – estimated between HK$80 and 120 million (around US$10.2 to 15.3 million) dollars. The Tohoku earthquake and tsunami on 11 March 2011 marked a turning point in Nara’s creations. The little girl protagonist gradually changed from a rebellious into a more gentle, warm and contemplative mood.

Alongside Nara, works by the most expensive American artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat, as well as Banksy, Zeng Fanzhi and Matthew Wong; are also featured as highlights in the auction.

Yoshitomo Nara │ Oddly Cozy, Acrylic on canvas

Created in 2013
194 x 162 cm

Estimate: HK$80,000,000 – 120,000,000

Yoshitomo Nara is a Japanese artist best known for his paintings of a young girl with piercing eyes. His artwork, Knife Behind Back (2000), was sold for HK$195.6 million (around US$25.1 million) dollars in October 2019. It made Nara the most expensive Japanese artist.

A contemporary of Takashi Murakami (founder of the Superflat manga/anime Japanese art movement), Nara was influenced by popular culture in both Eastern and Western society.

His versatile practice explores themes of isolation, rebellion, and spirituality through printmaking, painting, sculpture, ceramics and installations.

In 2011, a strong earthquake struck eastern Japan. Nara's birthplace was within the affected area, and Tochigi Prefecture, where he lived at the time, was 100 kilometres away from the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Devastated by the natural disasters, Nara was unable to paint and made him reflect on the meaning of creation. After a few months, he picked up his brush again with a new attitude and used his paintings in the hope of Japan's recovery.

Knife Behind Back (2000), 234 x 208cm | This painting sold for a record-breaking US$25 million in 2019

Yoshitomo Nara

Created in 2013, Nara experimented with new colours, hues and layering in Oddly Cozy – carefully creating shimmering translucencies on the canvas. Measuring 194 by 161.9 centimetres, the protagonist stands still against a bright and soft yellow-green background – her eyes glimmering with colours. She lost her naughty and stubborn sides in her early years, and instead her image became softer.

Nara's works have attracted many fans and achieved stellar results at auctions. Judging from its auction rankings, the little girl protagonist is the most sought after – taking the top three sales:

1. Knife Behind Back (2000) | Sotheby's Hong Kong, 2019Sold: HK$195,696,000 (around US$25 million)

2. Missing in Action (2000) | Phillips, Poly (Hong Kong and Beijing joint auction), 2021 | Sold:  HK$123,725,000 (around US$15.9 million)

3. Nice to See You Again (1996) | Sotheby's New York, 2021 | Sold: US$15,430,800

Missing in Action (2000), 165 x 150 cm

Nice to See You Again (1996), 180 x 150cm

Oddly Cozy's painting style is different from the earlier works mentioned above. But how was the market's reception of similar works?

Take Can’t Wait ‘til the Night Comes an example. Created in 2012, these two paintings are of similar sizes. In November 2019, it was auctioned at Christie’s Hong Kong, and the hammer was dropped at HK$80 million dollars. In the end, it garnered HK$92.8 million (around US$11.8 million) dollars with buyer’s premium.

Can’t Wait ‘til the Night Comes (2012), 193.2 x 183.2 cm

Jean-Michel Basquiat │ Water-Worshipper, Acrylic, oilstick, silkscreen ink and metal on panel

Created in 1984
209.6 x 274 x 10.2 cm
Provenance (Amended by The Value):

  • Mary Boone Gallery, New York
  • Christie's New York, 4 May 1988, Lot 247 (Sold: US$35,200)
  • Galerie Beaubourg, Paris
  • Private Collection, France
  • Sotheby's Paris, 7 December 2010, Lot 9 (Sold: €2,400,000)
  • Private Collection
  • Sotheby's London, 12 February 2014, Lot 36 (£2,490,500)
  • Acquired by the present owner from the above sale
  • Sotheby's Hong Kong, 2 April 2017, Lot 1042 (Sold: HK$42,287,500)
  • Acquired by the present owner from the above sale

Estimate: HK$62,000,000 – 93,000,000

Andy Warhol (left) and Jean-Michel Basquiat (right)

In 1982, Basquiat, an emerging street graffiti artist from New York, met Andy Warhol. The two met through Swiss art dealer, Bruno Bischofberger. Despite the differences between the two artists, the mutual influence on each other's oeuvre is visible. Inspired by Basquiat , Warhol returned to his painterly beginnings of the early 1960s; whereas Basquiat started to sample his earlier collages via Warhol's silkscreen technique.

Basquiat painted the figurative images on plywood but attached five horizontal rows of wooden slats below, which he then nailed to three visible pieces of timber. Drawing from his Afro-Caribbean roots, the American artist engages with religious systems of the African diaspora as well as with slavery and racism in this painting.

By Water-Worshipper in this present painting, Basquiat refers to the worshipping of the water goddess or ghost known as Yemaya in Haitian Voodoo. She is the Goddess of the Ocean and the Moon – one can find the moon in the upper left portion of the painting.

The slave's mouth on the right is covered with a line like a fence

Basquiat's use of five horizontal rows of wooden slats below resembles a slave ship

The figure on the left, seen as a follower or worshipper of Mami Wata, can also be associated with African Nkisi figures and Voodoo dolls, demonstrating the versatility of the figure. On the right, the character’s logo-like head is derived from the logo of the tobacco company, Player’s Navy Cut.

Basquiat painted the logo in white acrylic, and a line like a fence covers the slave’s mouth – thereby depriving their speech. The overall painting reminds the audience of slave ships – the transatlantic slave trade and slave labour in the Americas’ and Caribbean tobacco plantations.

Before this season’s auction, Water-Worshipper was auctioned for four times. The first time it was sold for US$35,200 dollars at Christie's New York in May 1988 – a few months before Basquiat's death.

Olyvia Kwok

Cy Twombyl's Idilli (1976) | Sotheby's London, 2014|Sold: £386,500 (around US$500,000)

In 2010, this painting was auctioned for the second time – sold at Sotheby's Paris for €2.4 million euros. In 2014, it was transferred to Sotheby's London where a lawsuit occurred. In that auction, Water-Worshipper was estimated between £2.5 and 3.5 million pounds, and was sold at £2.49 million pounds (around US$3.2 million dollars) with buyer’s premium.

After the auction, Sotheby’s sued art investor Olyvia Kwok for non-payment for two paintings – including Water-Worshipper and American abstract expressionist artist, Cy Twombly’s Idilli

Kwok was reportedly purchasing on behalf of a European collector, based in Hong Kong. But the latter was unable to pay, resulting in a lawsuit. In the end, Kwok purchased the two paintings and paid interest – totalling £3 million pounds – and the incident was resolved. In 2017, the work moved onto Sotheby's Hong Kong, and fetched HK$42.2 million (around US$5.5 million) dollars with buyer’s premium – its value increased by HK$10 million dollars in three years.

Whether these paintings can reach a new high in the Asian art market remains to be seen, and The Value will keep readers updated on their sale results.

Other highlight lots:

Banksy │ Love is in the Air, Stencil spray paint and oil on canvas

Estimate: HK$40,000,000 – 60,000,000

Zeng Fanzhi │ Mask Series 1999 No. 2

Estimate: HK$18,000,000 – 28,000,000  

Matthew Wong │ The Jungle

Estimate: HK$9,500,000 – 14,000,000

Christine Ay Tjoe │ Black Number 1, Oil on canvas

Created by 2014
200 x 180 cm

Estimate: HK$5,500,000 – 7,500,000

Auction Details:

Auction House: Sotheby’s Hong Kong

Sale: Contemporary Evening Auction

Date and Time: 27 April 2022 │ 8:15pm (Hong Kong local time)