COLLECTOR YUSAKU MAEZAWA’S TASTES RANGE FROM CONTEMPORARY ART TO 20TH-CENTURY DESIGN AND JAPANESE CERAMICS. HERE HE POSES WITH A GROUP OF 17TH-CENTURY ORIBE WARE. PHOTOGRAPH BY YASUNARI KIKUMA; MAKE UP BY SHINO; RETOUCHING BY MIKI STUDIO; SPECIAL THANKS TO IINO MEDIA PRO & LIGHT UP.
Yusaku Maezawa is ready for his close-up. For his photo shoot with leading Japanese magazine photographer Yasunari Kikuma, the 41-year-old e-commerce entrepreneur arrives with a game attitude. Maezawa has brought to Kikuma’s studio a few options from his personal wardrobe, and Kikuma selects a simple black T-shirt and jeans, then asks him to take off his shoes. The shoot will take place in front of a solid blue backdrop, the colour chosen to echo the palette of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Untitled, a 1982 painting that Maezawa bought at a recent Sotheby’s auction for a record $110.5 million. The barefoot look is a nod to Basquiat, who famously posed shoeless for a 1985 New York Times Magazine cover story that helped rocket him to art world fame just three years before his untimely death.
Maezawa “is like a model,” says Kikuma. He should know: The photographer has shot Kate Moss, Victoria Beckham and Penélope Cruz for publications including Vogue Japan and Dazed. “He is a very, very creative person,” Kikuma continues. In just twenty minutes, the youthful businessman – who played drums for a rock band before founding e-commerce giant Start Today and its offshoot Zozotown – has adopted a series of playful poses, then switches to a more Zen-like posture with some rare 17th-century Japanese ceramics he brought from home. “It was so much fun to work with him,” concludes Kikuma. “Maybe more than with a normal model!”
Maezawa has been getting a lot of practice posing for the camera. The Basquiat auction, which took place in New York in May, captured the world’s attention. Within days, the collector was interviewed and photographed for newspapers around the globe, including The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal in the US, Germany’s Die Welt and the Chinese edition of the Financial Times. According to the Journal, Maezawa’s purchases have “almost single-handedly shifted prices skyward for Basquiat.”
Before the May auction, it was widely expected that the 1982 Basquiat would edge out the artist’s previous record of $57.3 million, which Maezawa had also set, in 2016. But even the most jaded auction aficionados found themselves holding their breaths in the Sotheby’s saleroom that May evening. Auctioneer Oliver Barker started the bidding at $57 million, and the price swiftly rose to $68 million, offered by a telephone bidder. That bidder, it turned out, was Maezawa, who was watching the simulcast of the auction from his Tokyo home in a time zone twelve hours ahead, calmly phoning in his bids as his staff watched with mounting nervousness. Barker was poised theatrically, announcing “fair warning now,” and about to bring the gavel down, when a new bidder in the room raised his paddle.
(CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT) IMAGES FROM MAEZAWA’S INSTAGRAM FEED: WITH A DONALD JUDD STACK SCULPTURE; A CORTEN STEEL SCULPTURE IN HIS HOME; ANNOUNCING THE BASQUIAT PURCHASE AT SOTHEBY’S; JAPANESE CERAMICS; THE WALL STREET JOURNAL PROFILE.
It is unheard-of for a bidder to enter the contest at such a dizzying altitude, and gasps could be heard in the room. This was followed by complete silence from the crowd, as the two determined bidders went back and forth for several minutes until finally, $30 million later, the phone bidder took the painting with a $98 million bid. (The final price includes the buyer’s premium.)
Then the next phase in the drama began unfolding. Generally, when the $100 million bar is broken at auction, rumours abound concerning the identity of the buyer. Such was the case when Edvard Munch’s The Scream sold at Sotheby’s in 2012 for $120 million to an anonymous phone bidder, inciting weeks of speculation about the owner’s identity until The Wall Street Journal reported that it was a prominent New York collector. That was not the case with the Basquiat sale. Within a few minutes, Maezawa’s 200,000 followers on Instagram and Twitter learned that he was the painting’s new owner. Posting a photo of himself taken a few days earlier during a private viewing of the painting in New York, Maezawa wrote: “I am happy to announce that I just won this masterpiece. When I first encountered this painting, I was struck with so much excitement and gratitude for my love of art. I want to share that experience with as many people as possible.”
GENERATION Y: 1977, FEATURING WORKS BY ADRIAN GHENIE AND OTHERS (2016), AN EXHIBITION ORGANISED BY MAEZAWA’S CONTEMPORARY ART FOUNDATION.
Soon, the world learned a tremendous amount about Maezawa’s wide and deep commitment to collecting. The best place to start is on Instagram. To follow @yusaku2020 is to enter a world where art is a defining feature of everyday life. There you’ll find photos he frequently posts of new additions to his collection and how they are displayed in his home, such as a Richard Prince nurse painting in a stairwell and prized 20th-century design classics by Jean Prouvé in the living room. He also frequently includes pictures documenting his visits to museums and galleries around the world, time spent with artists like Ai Weiwei and Takashi Murakami, his tours of fabled French wine cellars and even his appearance at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Met Gala.
WORKS BY ON KAWARA AND DONALD JUDD FROM MAEZAWA’S COLLECTION, EXHIBITED IN 2014 UNDER THE AUSPICES OF THE CONTEMPORARY ART FOUNDATION.
In an interview over email, I asked Maezawa for his views on social media and the way it may be changing the staid art world. “I believe information sharing and openness allow things to become more fairly evaluated,” he replied. “My announcement of the Basquiat purchase on Instagram has provided an opportunity for the world to reassess and acknowledge the outstanding talent of the artist. On the other hand, I also look for the works of completely unknown and young artists on Instagram and actually purchase their works if I feel the quality is good.”
Social media provides an accessible window into Maezawa’s world, but for those who have been following his journey as a collector for many years, the picture is much richer and more complex. According to Amy Cappellazzo, chairman of Sotheby’s Fine Art Division, “Yusaku Maezawa is an incredibly brave, innovative and passionate collector who is not bound by convention. His vision is all his own – guided by his instinct, sensibility and eye for quality. His approach to building a collection is organic and transcends typical boundaries, like geographical origin or historical period. The results are impressive and represent collecting at the highest level.”
ONKO CHISHIN, FEATURING WORKS BY ON KAWARA AND DONALD JUDD (2014), AN EXHIBITION ORGANISED BY MAEZAWA’S CONTEMPORARY ART FOUNDATION.
If courage and innovation are the characteristics that have guided Maezawa’s journey as a collector, it is a desire to share his art widely – and not just through social media – that truly sets him apart. In 2012 in Tokyo, he started the Contemporary Art Foundation (CAF), which organises exhibitions and gives grants to young artists and musicians. The foundation’s innovative programming dovetails with Maezawa’s collecting interests, as in a recent exhibition of Jean Prouvé furniture designs it staged at the French ambassador’s official residence in Tokyo, and a 2014 show that juxtaposed the conceptual art of On Kawara with minimalist sculpture by Donald Judd. Kawara and Judd are two artists Maezawa cites as representative of his collection, along with Basquiat, Jeff Koons and Pablo Picasso. Maezawa’s interests aren’t limited to art market favourites. “I am also fascinated by artists of my own generation and those younger than me. I believe art has no boundaries, and my passion is equally strong for many other categories. My collection includes not only contemporary art, but also design by Jean Royère and Japanese antique ceramics such as Oribe and Raku.” Does he take a varied approach to collecting art, design and antiquities? “I don’t feel any differences,” he replies. “I want to live surrounded by beautiful things.”
JEAN PROUVÉ: THE CONSTRUCTOR (2016), AN EXHIBITION ORGANISED BY MAEZAWA’S CONTEMPORARY ART FOUNDATION. PHOTOGRAPH BY KAORI NISHIDA.
Putting his collection on view through the CAF’s exhibitions and giving young emerging artists opportunities makes Maezawa happy: “I like to share what I love with everyone,” he says. That impulse has led him to plan a museum to showcase his holdings in Chiba City, his hometown, some 40 kilometres from downtown Tokyo. Yet beyond acknowledging that the museum is in the planning stages, Maezawa remains mum about its schedule or even who its architect will be. All that seems certain is that when the collector decides to reveal details, it will be through social media. So make sure to keep following @yusaku2020.
Anthony Calnek is editor in chief of Sotheby’s magazine.