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S ince its establishment in 1936, Hirano Kotoken, located in Kyobashi, Tokyo, has continued for over a period of approximately 87 years until this present day to provide art collectors and museums within Japan and abroad with excellent works of art. Passed down from the founder Ryoji Hirano (fig. 1) through to the second generation, Tatsuo, and the third generation, Ryoichi, Hirano Kotoken’s tradition coexists with a global perspective of consistently looking towards the art market in the world. This text will trace the path which spans over three generations of the rare antique art dealer, Hirano Kotoken.

fig. 1
Ryoji Hirano (1910-88, back row left), Tatsuo Hirano (1939-2022, back row centre), his mother and sisters, 1940s

The Establishment of Hirano Kotoken

The founder of Hirano Kotoken, Ryoji Hirano, the fourth son of a farming family in Osaka, was born on 1st March 1910. Upon graduating from junior high school under the old education system in 1929, Ryoji got a job with a gallery which specialised in Chinese art through his elder brother, Tatsujiro, who was working in the antique art world at the time. The gallery, Asano Chikuseki Sanbou, was run by Umekichi Asano, who later became known as the “walking dictionary of Chinese art.”

After joining the gallery, Ryoji had opportunities to travel to Beijing and Shanghai with his employer, and became knowledgeable about the art world in China. He also worked with Yamanaka & Co., which at the time was conducting business extensively on a global scale, and bought several thousand artworks for them. Furthermore, when an important client, Jihei Kano, opened the Hakutsuru Fine Art Museum in May 1934, Ryoji went to the museum nearly every day to provide assistance. During this period of working under the tutelage of Umekichi Asano, Ryoji developed knowledge on Chinese ceramics and archaic bronzes — his employer’s area of expertise — which he would treasure throughout his life.

After working under Umekichi for seven years, Ryoji felt that he was gaining a glimpse of the art world. He left Asano Chikuseki Sanbou and opened Hirano Kotoken on 26th February 1936. The name of “Kotoken” was given by Umekichi Asano. Having entered the art world earlier on, Tatsujiro, Ryoji’s elder brother, had already achieved success in dealing in Chinese antiques and owned a gallery also in Beijing. Tatsujiro was eager to support Ryoji when he opened a gallery and provided significant help by acquiring large numbers of excellent bronze ware in China for Hirano Kotoken. Ryoji also worked relentlessly day and night and the business gradually began to grow.

In December 1937, an important encounter greatly impacted the course of Ryoji’s life. Chikara Suematsu, the owner of the antique art gallery Suichikudo in Moji, Kitakyushu City, introduced Ryoji to one of his clients, Sazo Idemitsu, founder of Idemitsu Shokai (presently, Idemitsu Kosan Co., Ltd.). Ryoji later recounted his first impression of Sazo Idemitsu: “He was a fine gentleman but with a dominating presence, which made me hesitate to exchange words.” At that time, Ryoji brought along a Shang dynasty bronze vessel zun, which Sazo Idemitsu purchased after taking one look at it. From then on, Ryoji would bring an artwork each time he visited the company office, and eventually sold many pieces to Sazo Idemitsu throughout his life.

In 1937, a year after Ryoji opened his gallery, the Second Sino-Japanese War broke out, which was followed by the opening of the Pacific War in 1941, and the war situation steadily worsened. The effects of the war cast a shadow on Ryoji’s business and in 1943, Ryoji was finally forced to temporarily close Hirano Kotoken.

The Development of Hirano Kotoken

fig. 2
Hirano Kotoken in Oimatsu-cho, Kita Ward, Osaka City, 1960s

In 1947, amidst the ongoing postwar reconstruction, Ryoji reopened the newly built gallery of Hirano Kotoken in Oimatsu-cho, Kita Ward, Osaka City (fig. 2). Ryoji’s elder brother, Tatsujiro, was in Pyongyang when the war ended and was subsequently detained in the Soviet Union. After he was granted permission and returned to Japan, he decided to work for Hirano Kotoken while undergoing recovery treatment for his health. The re-establishment of Hirano Kotoken during the postwar period was carried out through the unified cooperation and teamwork between Ryoji and Tatsujiro.

In 1958, Jiro Enjoji, then-managing director of Nihon Keizai Shimbun (Nikkei Inc.), visited Hirano Kotoken with Seiichi Mizuno, an archeologist in Chinese antiquities, which resulted in the beginning of a friendship between Ryoji and Jiro Enjoji. Jiro Enjoji had a deep interest in art and he subsequently actively promoted Chinese art exhibitions and art publications.

During this period, Eiichi Ataka, who actively collected Korean and Chinese ceramics, also frequented Hirano Kotoken. Among the numerous ceramics that Eiichi Ataka bought from Hirano Kotoken, an especially notable piece was Tobiseiji gyokkoshun (Celadon with iron-brown spots yuhuchunping, fig. 3), a national treasure passed down in the Konoike Family and now housed in the collection of the Museum of Oriental Ceramics, Osaka, which inherited the Ataka Collection.

fig. 3
A russet-splashed celadon vase, yuhuchunping, Yuan dynasty, National Treasure © The Museum of Oriental Ceramics, Osaka (gift of SUMITOMO Group, the ATAKA Collection), Photograph by NISHIKAWA Shigeru

Gradually, Ryoji was conducting business on a global scale and responded to requests from clients within Japan and abroad for masterpieces. During this period, he often made deals with antique art dealers and art collectors who were active on the world stage, such as Edward T. Chow, Jean Pierre Dubosc, and Roger Bluett, and as a result Hirano Kotoken became renowned globally.

I would like to now mention Tatsuo, the second-generation successor of Hirano Kotoken, who contributed to its further development. Tatsuo, son of Ryoji, was born on 3rd November 1939 (fig. 4). Tatsuo initially was not interested in taking over the family business, but while attending Kwansei Gakuin University, he began accompanying his father, Ryoji, as a baggage carrier when he visited clients and gradually began to develop an interest in the antique art world. Tatsuo finally made the decision to take over the family business and on graduating from university in 1962, he told Ryoji about his decision. His father said, “You need to obtain an apprenticeship elsewhere before joining our gallery, and you should gain experience in a genre other than antique art.” Consequently, Tatsuo was introduced to Yayoi Gallery in Ginza, Tokyo, which was also a client of Hirano Kotoken. Toshio Ogawa, the owner of Yayoi Gallery did not make an exception for Tatsuo, who was the son of an established art dealer, but instead made sure that he began learning from the basic chores such as cleaning and packing. Tatsuo worked hard, starting by perfectly doing whatever he was able to do, and he was gradually entrusted with main tasks of the business.

fig. 4
Ryoji Hirano (1910-88) and Tatsuo Hirano (1939-2022)

After having worked for Yayoi Gallery for nine years, Tatsuo finally decided to become independent. However, instead of just taking over his father’s art dealing business in Osaka, Tatsuo thought about the future of Hirano Kotoken and had the idea of opening a new location in Tokyo. As a result, on 1st March 1971, he opened the Tokyo gallery of Hirano Kotoken in Ginza. Toshio Ogawa not only introduced clients to Tatsuo, but on the day of the opening, he came to the gallery and assisted the customers, and consequently, nearly all the artworks in the gallery were sold on the first day. Tatsuo reminisced that Toshio Ogawa was “a strict owner but he had a warm heart and was a thoughtful person.”

Tatsuo was strongly aware of the importance of the international market, and while carrying on with business at his Tokyo gallery, he also actively travelled abroad. He often went to international auction houses, where he bought and sold many artworks. Furthermore, the auctions not only provided Tatsuo with the opportunity to come into contact with many artworks offered for bids and obtain knowledge about them, but also helped him develop rapport with art experts and collectors. Tatsuo developed a wide circle of friendship which includes world-renowned antique art dealers such as Giuseppe Eskenazi and Richard Marchant in London, Joseph Chan in Hong Kong, and James J. Lally in New York. He formed a particularly close friendship with Julian Thompson, who later laid the foundation for Sotheby’s Hong Kong, and this continuing friendship eventually extended to Ryoichi, Tatsuo’s son.

fig. 5
A blue and white ‘dragon’ jar, mark and period of Xuande © Idemitsu Museum of Arts

In 1981, Tatsuo purchased Sentoku seikaunryumon ko (Xuande blue and white ‘dragon and cloud’ jar, fig. 5) in London, and this purchase caused quite a commotion for the Hirano family. Upon seeing this piece offered at the Sotheby’s auction, Tatsuo was enraptured by its beauty and made a successful bid for it, breaking the record for Chinese ceramics at the time. Moreover, the money for the purchase had been borrowed from a bank by mortgaging the Hirano family residence. Hearing from Tatsuo about the purchase, Ryoji got extremely angry and said, “Our business will go under,” but after actually seeing the piece, he was very pleased with it, and Tatsuo was relieved. However, since the business would face bankruptcy if the piece remained unsold, Tatsuo was very nervous. So he showed the work to Sazo Idemitsu quoting a price which hardly made any profit, and Sazo Idemitsu made a purchase then and there, saying, “Well, it’s a fine piece and it’s inexpensive.” Subsequently, Tatsuo reminisced about the incident emotionally, saying that Sazo Idemitsu was an exceptional individual. In 1982, the following year, Sazo Idemitsu passed away. Today, the numerous masterpieces which Hirano Kotoken sold to him continue to shine brilliantly in the Idemitsu Museum of Arts and this remains a source of great pride for Hirano Kotoken.

In May 1988, Hirano Kotoken held an exhibition to celebrate its 50th anniversary and published a catalogue containing 101 selected artworks which it had dealt with in the past and to which they felt a particularly strong attachment. Sazo Idemitsu’s son, Shosuke Idemitsu, and Jiro Enjoji, who had become an adviser at Nihon Keizai Shimbun (Nikkei Inc.), provided the celebratory messages for the catalogue. Ryoji also prepared the foreword and was eagerly awaiting the publication of the catalogue. However, he regrettably passed away right before the completion of the catalogue and was unable to witness the publication of the catalogue, Kotoken Senka (Kotoken archive).

Looking Towards the Future

Having often spent time abroad purchasing artworks, Tatsuo developed various feelings towards the art world in Japan. Tatsuo realised that, while collectors in Japan were accustomed to buy and sell artworks through art dealers, those participating in auctions abroad were buying and selling artworks directly, and that in the future the demand for art dealers would decrease, and that the art market would be centred around auctions. Moreover, he was worried that the opportunities for trading artworks in the Japanese art market were beginning to decrease, and in 1987, he established Shinwakai with fellow art dealers who supported his vision of creating a society for trading artworks. Three years later, Shinwakai held the Shinwa Art Auction. The Shinwa Art Auction was thorough in its aim of achieving fair trade and creating a system which was trusted by all participants. With a tall physique and a voice that carried well, Tatsuo held the gavel as an auctioneer, and was the face of the auction for a long period of time.

Thus, while continuing with his business as the president of Hirano Kotoken, Tatsuo also carried out innovations, such as organising the society for trading artworks and holding auctions, which looked towards the future of the art world. By this stage, Hirano Kotoken had established itself as a presence which went beyond the traditional art dealer. This vision of Hirano Kotoken has been firmly passed down to the current third-generation president, Ryoichi.

Tatsuo’s son, Ryoichi, was born on 6th March 1971. After studying economics at Seijo University, in 1994 Ryoichi entered the art world and joined Yayoi Gallery where his father had previously worked. The period when Ryoichi began working coincided with the collapse of the bubble economy, and since many artworks were sold off by companies, he had the opportunity to come into contact with high-quality collections.

After working at Yayoi Gallery for 13 years, Ryoichi left the gallery and in 2007 reopened Hirano Kotoken, which his father, Tatsuo, had temporarily closed, at a location in Kyobashi, Tokyo. Although suffering an impact from events such as the financial crisis of 2008 and the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011, Ryoichi was able to put the business on track, supported by the soaring price of Chinese ceramics.

Approximately five years after becoming independent, Ryoichi received an offer from Sotheby’s for the position of International Senior Specialist of the Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art department. The position of a specialist involved travelling not only to auction venues in New York, London, Paris, and Hong Kong, but also anywhere in the world if there were artworks to appraise. When he was offered this valuable opportunity, Ryoichi carefully considered the various possibilities including future development, and ultimately decided to temporarily close Hirano Kotoken and work for Sotheby’s. Through his career with Sotheby’s, Ryoichi was able to come into contact with an exceptionally large number of artworks. Furthermore, he established an extensive network of contacts in various industries, including not only the art world, but also the academic, political and business worlds.

After working for Sotheby’s for seven years, where he spent the last three years as Managing Director of Sotheby’s Japan, Ryoichi decided to return to Hirano Kotoken. In December 2018, he became the representative of Hirano Kotoken and returned to his roots as an art dealer which involves talking directly to clients about artworks. However, he also continues to communicate broadly about the fascination of art to the public through working on projects with the Agency for Cultural Affairs and giving lectures at companies.

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