Masters of the Woodblock: Important Japanese Prints
Online Auction: 14–21 July 2022 • 2:00 PM BST • London

Masters of the Woodblock: Important Japanese Prints 14–21 July 2022 • 2:00 PM BST • London

F rom 14-21 July, Masters of the Woodblock: Important Japanese Prints features forty lots of exemplary Japanese woodblock prints. Opening the sale is the Property of an Important Private European Collection (Lots 1–17); all were formerly in the collection of Henri Vever (1854-1942) and include numerous designs from the late 18th – early 19th century. The sale continues with a further fine bijin-ga from Eishosai Choki and a portrait of the actor Arashi Ryuzo II, each respectively with Werner Schindler (1905-1986) and Theodor Scheiwe (1897-1983) provenance. Iconic and important prints include the Great Wave, Red Fuji and the earliest type of impression of Sudden Rain beneath the Summit.

Auction Highlights

Property from an Important Private European Collection | Lots 1 - 17
All Formerly in the Collection of Henri Vever (1854-1942)

Sotheby’s is proud to present this important collection of Japanese woodblock prints. All were bought from Sotheby’s, London, Highly Important Japanese Prints from the Henri Vever Collection: Final Part, 30 October 1997. The Vever print sales at Sotheby’s comprised of four auctions: the first three taking place in the mid-1970s and marking one of the most extradentary events of Japanese print collecting history. At the time of the first sale, the owners kept roughly two hundred of the finest or rarest prints; these would comprise the 'Final Part' almost twenty years later. in which these prints were purchased from.

The collection is focused on prints from the late 18th – early 19th century, often regarded as the Golden Age of Japanese colour printing. An impression of a courtesan on an engawa (veranda) parodying the Muken no kane scene is followed by Utamaro’s half-length portrait of the Ashiya Widow. A triptych of a noblewoman and attendants making a giant snowball, also formerly in the collection of Hayashi Tadamasa (1853-1906) precedes the delicately printed Beach at Sunrise. The collection closes with an impression of Sudden Shower over Shin-Ohashi Bridge and Atake of the highest quality. From the ‘luxury’ edition, it is characterized by thick paper and the addition of bokashi printing to the waters and bridge.

Henri Vever was regarded as one of the most distinguished jewellers of his time, as well as the archetypal collector. By the 1880s, Vever was amongst the earliest Europeans to formally collect Japanese prints. He bought extensively from Hayashi Tadamasa and was a member of Les Amis de l’Art Japonais, a clique of art enthusiasts, including Claude Monet, who met regularly to discuss Japanese works of art. In the early 20th century, Vever had already amassed a vast collection of fine prints numbering in the thousands. His collection became a focal point for scholars such as von Seidlitz, Migeon, and Lemoisne, whom almost exclusively used his collection alone for their research. During his lifetime, Vever made several important bequests to French national collections. At the peak of World War I, Vever sold much of his collection to Matsukata Kojiro, eventually forming a significant part of the Tokyo National Museum’s collection of ukiyo-e.

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Hokusai's Masterpieces from Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji

Katsushika Hokusai’s (1760-1849) Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (Fugaku sanjurokkei) was published between 1831-33 by Nishimuraya Yohachi. The series of forty-six prints includes Hokusai’s most renowned designs Under the Wave off Kanagawa [‘The Great Wave’], South Wind, Clear Sky [‘Red Fuji’] and Sudden Rain beneath the Summit, all three of which we are proud to be offering in this sale.

The volcano, towering 3,776 metres above sea level, was visible from the capital of Edo on clear days despite its distance at 100 kilometres. The subject of religious worship and national identity, the beauty and ever-presence of Mount Fuji within the Japanese topography lent itself as an important subject among poets and painters for centuries. The numbered designation of the series is canonical, referring to the Thirty-six Poet Immortals and further evoking the mountain as a source of poetry, art and sublimity.

Marking Hokusai’s return to the world of woodblock printing under a commercial publishing house after a brief hiatus, the extensive series boasted the highest number of instalments for a serialised body of work in the landscape genre and was advertised for its extensive use of the imported Prussian blue pigment. Hokusai and Nishimuraya’s decision to print the works mainly in Prussian blue suggest both the lavishness of the project, as well as Hokusai’s sense of observation. Woodblock prints rendered entirely in shades of blue (aizuri-e) were popular in the late 1820s and early 1830s and were a bold display of the chemical pigment then imported from China. The Thirty-six Views utilised this along with the traditional indigo pigment to print the series, varying in saturations of the single colour to both subtle and dramatic effect, with the monochromatic landscapes intentionally suggest the hazy din of dawn or dusk hours.

The three masterpieces offered here are a tour de force of colour and form, marking a visually radical shift within the Japanese woodblock printing tradition that had lasting ramifications in both art and design internationally.

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Early Western Collectors of Japanese Prints
Dr. Monika Hinkel, Lecturer in the Arts of Japan, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS)

The first Japanese woodblock prints reached Europe in the late 17th and early 18th century through people affiliated with the Dutch East India company like the German surgeon Engelbert Kaempfer (1651–1716) and the Swedish botanist Carl Thunberg. Both had gathered collections of Japanese prints during their stay in Japan and brought them to Europe, despite an export ban on printed material at the time. Kaempfer’s prints became part of the Sir Hans Sloane bequest that later entered the collection of the British Museum, Thunberg’s prints entered the Museum of Ethnography in Stockholm. The first Japanese prints in a French collection were from the Dutch physician Isaac Titsingh (1745–1812). A selection of Titsingh’s prints became part of the collection of the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris in 1795. Thus, long before the opening of Japan in the 1850s, Japanese prints had already reached Western shores.

Edmond De Goncourt, by Felix Bracquemond, 1882

One of the earliest European collectors of Japanese art who had not travelled to Japan were the French graphic designer and painter Felix Bracquemond (1833–1914) and the brothers Edmond (1822–96) and Jules (1830–1870) de Goncourt. The Goncourt brothers, novelists, playwrights, and art critics acquired Japanese art from the mid-1850s. In 1881 Edmond published La Maison d’un artiste, which provided a detailed description of his Japanese art collection and in which he praised the high artistic standard of Japanese prints. In 1891 and 1896, he released books on Utamaro and Hokusai, the first monographs on Japanese artists to be published in the West. Part of this first generation of collectors were also many painters, like Edouard Manet (1832–1883), Claude Monet (1840–1926) and Edgar Degas (1834–1917) and art critics like Philippe Burty (1830–1890). They purchased Japanese prints in shops in Paris that specialised in Chinese and Japanese artefacts.

Portrait photograph of Hayashi Tadamasa, Exposition Universelle, 1900

Many of these great early collections of Ukiyo-e were assembled with the help of Hayashi Tadamasa (1853–1906), the Japanese art dealer from Nagasaki, who came to Paris in 1878 as an assistant and a translator for Wakai Kanesaburō (1834–1908), vice president of Kiritsu Kosho Kaisha (The First Japanese Manufacturing and Trading Company, 1873–1891), a company that managed the Japanese contributions to the Paris Exposition Universelle. After the exhibition, Hayashi stayed on to sell off the remaining stock and established in 1884 with Wakai the Wakai–Hayashi company in Paris. Both were important in the development of Western, namely French, scholarship on Japanese art, in particular prints. After Wakai retired in 1886, Hayashi continued with the business on his own, became one of the most important dealers in Japanese art and was instrumental as an importer of Ukiyo-e. Hayashi’s wife Satoko, who resided still in Tokyo, selected, together with Japanese specialists prints that were sold at his dealership in Paris. All works they handled bear the ‘Hayashi’ seal, which became regarded as a reliable indicator of high quality and authenticity (see Lots 4, 7, 11 and 15). Between 1890 and 1902, an estimated 160,000 Japanese prints and around 10,000 illustrated books were sold to Western collectors by Hayashi. He befriended many artists in France whose paintings he exported to Japan. His expertise and impeccable taste were also apparent in his selection of Japanese art for the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle. In 1902 he closed his business, sold part of his collection, and returned to Japan in 1906.

Photograph of Henri Vever

Henri Vever (1854–1942) came from a line of jewellers based in Metz, France. With his brother, Paul, he ran a business in Rue de la Paix in Paris, producing Art Nouveau pieces. He collected Persian and Moghul miniatures, rare books and Impressionist paintings and amassed one of the largest and largest collections of Japanese prints of his time. In around 1916, Vever sold a portion of his collection to the Japanese industrialist Matsukata Kojirō (1865-1950), who then donated the works to the Tokyo National Museum.

Vever continued to collect prints until he died in 1943. He purchased prints, for example, at the sales of the collections of the painter Michel Manzi (1849–1915), Charles Field Haviland (1832–96), art critic and writer Louise Gonse (1846–1921) and Louise Émile Javal (1839–1907) (see Lot 8), a judge in the Civil Court of the Seine, Paris. Javal’s print collection was sold in an auction in 1928. An auction catalogue of his collection of Japanese prints and printed books was published in 1927, under the title Catalogue de la Bibliothèque de Livres japonais Illustrés appartenant à M. Émile Javal (Paris, 1927). The Vever prints only came up at auction for the first time in the 1970s (see Lots 1-17). The first was a sale at Sotheby’s in 1974, followed by four more sales in 1975, 1977, 1978 and 1997. These auctions were accompanied by lavishly illustrated catalogues written by the print scholar Jack Ronald Hillier (1912–95). A separate three-volume catalogue, also written by Hillier, was published in 1976. Vever’s collection of Japanese prints was one of the finest ones acquired at the time.

Similar to the development in Europe, the first collectors of Japanese prints in the United States appeared in the 19th century and were artists and Japonisme enthusiasts, purchasing prints during study trips to Paris. These prints served as important sources of inspiration for their work. Other collectors of Japanese prints during the late 19th and early 20th century were American industrialists and financiers who would buy prints in bulk at wholesale prices in Japan, Paris or at dealers in the States, as they were still affordable and available in large quantities.

Portrait photograph of Frank Lloyd Wright

One of the most influential and passionate collectors of Ukiyo-e in the United States was the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1869–1959) (see Lots 38-40). His first encounter with Japanese prints was in January 1896 at the New York exhibition and sale of over 440 Ukiyo-e prints by the collector and scholar Ernest Fenollosa (1853–1908). In 1917 Wright wrote of this exhibition: “When I first saw a fine print about twenty–five years ago, it was an intoxicating thing.” Hence, he began collecting Japanese prints and dated photographs from the 1890s of Wright’s home and office showing Japanese prints and other pieces of Japanese art on display. Wright made his first private trip to Japan in 1905, documented in the 1996 book, Frank Lloyd Wright’s ‘Fifty Views of Japan’ – The 1905 Photo Album. He returned from that trip to the United States with several hundred Utagawa Hiroshige prints. Wright became the main lender of an important exhibition on Japanese prints at the Art Institute in Chicago, which the curator and scholar Frederick William Gookin (1853–1936) organised, and Wright designed the installation. In 1912 Wright published The Japanese Print: An Interpretation, explaining his newfound passion, the mathematics, and geometric forms he had encountered in Hokusai’s prints and illustrated books (ehon). Wright returned to Japan in the spring of 1913 and spent two months purchasing Japanese prints, but not only for his collection as he had by that time become a dealer of Ukiyo-e. Gookin in Chicago and Shugio Hiromichi (1853–1927) in Tokyo became his advisors and agents. Between 1917 to 1922, Wright spent extended periods in Japan while overseeing the construction of the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo (completed in 1923/demolished in 1968), giving him time to purchase more Japanese art. Many of America’s major woodblock print collectors of the time like Clarence Buckingham (1854–1913), William (1865–1937) and John (1870–1948) Spaulding, Howard Mansfield (1849–1938), and Arthur Davidson Ficke (1883–1945), Mary A. Ainsworth (1867–1950) and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller (1874–1948) commissioned Wright to purchase prints for their collections. In 1927, due to bankruptcy Wright had to sell 300 of his prints at an auction in New York and the following year, he sold a further 5.000 prints to the collector Edward Burr Van Vleck (1863–1943). Many of these prints are now at the Chazen Museum of Art, University of Wisconsin-Madison. It is estimated that during Wright’s life, more than 20.000 prints passed through his hands as a collector and art dealer.

Wright promoted the educational value of Japanese prints and was well known among his friends, colleagues, and fellow collectors for his ‘print parties’ that he hosted at his Taliesin house in Spring Green, Wisconsin. At these gatherings, Wright would enjoy telling the history of prints and describing selected works to his guests. He was also known to give away prints on special occasions as gifts or as work incentives to his employees. In September 1957, during one of his viewing parties, he said about his affinity for prints:

“I remember when I first met the Japanese prints. That art had a great influence on my feeling and thinking. Japanese architecture – nothing at all. But when I saw that print and I saw the elimination of the insignificant and simplicity of vision, together with the sense of rhythm and the importance of design. I began to see nature in a totally different way.”

Monika Hinkel (SOAS)


Meech, Julia. Frank Lloyd Wright and the Art of Japan – The Architects other Passion, Japan Society and Harry N. Abrams Inc., 2001.

Newland, Amy (ed.). The Hotei Encyclopedia of Japanese Woodblock Prints, Brill, 2005.

Whitmore, Janet. "Henri Vever, Champion de l’Art Nouveau, written by Willa Z. Silverman

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Reading The Fine Print: The Extraordinary Skill Of Japan's Woodblock Masters BY REBECCA SALTER P.R.A


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