An avatar for the art world boom-time, the Japanese artist Takashi Murakami is closely connected in most people’s minds with money. Famous for installing a pop-up Louis Vuitton store offering $960 handbags in the middle of “©Murakami”, his 2007-08 exhibition that began at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, his ambitious yet childlike work straddles art and commerce; high and low culture.
”I am looking for the crossing point between fine art and entertainment,” Murakami told The New York Times in 2001. Over the next 16 years his work (and market) would do just that. Synonymous with the top of the market in 2007 and 2008, now—almost ten years on—seems a good moment to assess the current health of the Murakami market.
The early years
“When we began working together, there was no awareness or knowledge of who he was, so you had to build a context,” says Tim Blum, the co-founder of Blum & Poe, who has worked with Murakami since 1991.
It was about reaching an audience and fucking with those lines between art and commerce
From the beginning, Murakami wanted to make work that was accessible at all prices—this is “the most vital component” of his work, Blum says. “It was about reaching an audience and fucking with those lines between art and commerce. Some people still don’t quite understand the context; to criticize him for commerciality is to miss the point.”
In 2001 Murakami reached a broader audience thanks to “Superflat”, an exhibition that he curated at MOCA Pacific Design Center which then traveled to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle. “It built a more foundational context for where he was coming from,” Blum says.
He burst onto the auction scene in May 2002 when the sculpture Hiropon (1997) flew over its $80,000 low estimate to sell for $427,500 at Christie’s. Six months later, the painting When the Double Helix is Aroused I Hear a Familiar Voice (1999) tripled its $150,000 low estimate to sell for the same price at the same house.
Estimates, prices and demand all increased the following year when auction sales of Murakami’s work totaled almost $8m, including the $567,500 sale of the fiberglass sculpture Miss KO2 (1997) at Christie’s.
By 2004, six-figure estimates were commonplace but there were signs of volatility: a third of the 27 works offered that year failed to find buyers. (All auction numbers exclude works sold in edition sales.) The first work to sell for more than $1m was Nirvana (2001), selling in 2006 for $1.1m against a $300,000 low estimate at Sotheby’s. Around the same time, Murakami switched galleries from Marianne Boesky to Gagosian.
Between 2002 and 2006, Murakami’s auction record had more than doubled. In 2007, it doubled again, when Vapor Trail (2004) sold for $2.4m at Sotheby’s against a $400,000 low estimate. (Notably, Flower 2, from the same year and made in the same size and medium had gone unsold in 2004 at Sotheby’s (est. $180,000-$220,000).
2008 was Murakami’s marquee year. Three works surpassed the 2007 record including the 1998 sculpture My Lonesome Cowboy, the sale of which catapulted the market to an entirely new level: it made $15.2m (est. $3m-$4m) at Sotheby’s, making him one of the world’s most expensive living artists at the time, Murakami, who attended the auction, told New York magazine afterwards that the result was “not surprising”.
The total amount spent at auction in 2008 on Murakami’s art was $36m—almost $10m more than the entire sum spent at on his works at auction between 2002 and 2007. Returns on resale were calculated by the Sotheby’s Mei Moses index as 49.9% in 2007 and $47.7% in 2008—outstripping the overall market in the same period (it had yielded returns of 14.3% and 13.2% respectively).
Slump and recovery
Even during the 2008 boom, there were signs of volatility as three out of every ten lots offered failed to sell, including four works estimated above $1m. By 2009, as the entire market crashed, the numbers make for sorry reading. Murakami’s auction totals fell to $3m for the year, with works offered at an average low estimate of $200,000 (compared with almost $500,000 the previous year).
The complex part with Murakami’s work is that it is so colorful, playful and decorative—but also thoughtful and intellectually advanced in its questioning of what a work of art can be today
“Virtually every artist who has early success reaches a point where their market dips. It’s a natural part of the cycle of an artist’s career,” says Allan Schwartzman. “The complex part with Murakami’s work is that it is so colorful, playful and decorative in appearance—but also thoughtful, scholarly and intellectually advanced in its questioning of what a work of art can be today. This kind of work is more vulnerable to a shift in taste. Work that is Pop-ish can look frivolous in challenging economic and social times. We saw it with Warhol and we saw it with Hirst, Koons and many others.”
Within the context of the market as a whole in 2009, however, it wasn’t all doom and gloom: Murakami’s works performed comparatively well against estimate, achieving 141% of the low estimate compared with 128% the year before. At Sotheby’s, there was an average of three bidders per lot and a consistent level of new bidders (26% in 2008, 27% in 2009).
During this time, “certain people doubled down and remained committed”, Blum says. “There are going to be ebbs and flows, for sure. Times and tastes change. Murakami has a very specific kind of aesthetic and it isn’t for everybody. But we have always felt confident about the work, and I believe markets will follow.”
This pattern of performance against estimate continued to improve into 2010 when Phillips partnered with the art advisor Philippe Ségalot to stage a 33-lot auction entitled “Carte Blanche” in New York. The auction featured two works by Murakami, which together made $9.1m (combined est. $5.2m-$7.8m), contributing significantly to Murakami’s $16m auction total for the year.
The most revealing auction sale of Murakami’s work that year was part of the “Carte Blanche” auction: the return of Miss KO2. The sculpture once again lifted the level of Murakami’s market, selling for $6.8m against a $4m low estimate.
As the broader art market continued its recovery through 2010 and 2011, the Murakami market seemed to be mending, too. Auction volume and value steadily increased; the average lot value was consistent, at around $400,000 and both sell-through rates and the performance of lots against their estimates remained solid. But, at the higher level (above $1m), works struggled, barely clearing their low estimates. And, across the Murakami market as a whole, the number of bidders per lot was falling.
There was a dip in volume and value in 2012: of the 28 lots offered, 21 sold for a combined $13.5m. But, 2013 showed improvement: of the 40 lots offered, 30 sold for a total of $16.8m.
However, total auction sales dropped to $3.6m in 2014—falling to 2004-05 levels. For the first time, Murakami’s market was showing deviation from the broader market: his was sliding, while the broader market was reaching unprecedented levels.
It is interesting to note that six of the top ten auction prices for Murakami’s work were set in 2010 or earlier. Compare that with Gerhard Richter, another artist who reached $15m in the 2008-10 period but whose market has reached new heights since (all of Richter’s top 10 prices have been achieved since 2010).
Blum suggests that this comes down to the two types of collectors interested in Murakami’s work: one attracted to the “cartoony, cute character” of the work, the other more engaged with its academic references. The first kind was likely more involved in the Murakami market when his works were trending and making higher prices: they may well have started looking elsewhere after prices went south. While the second kind has remained committed to Murakami’s work, they are focused only on the best—and earliest—examples of his art. “It’s hard to get your hands on these great examples,” Blum says.
Standing the Test of Time
Ironically, for an artist so associated with boom-times, Murakami’s market may have actually benefitted from its lackluster performance during the most recent market rise between 2012-15: it made his prices less susceptible to the correction that took place in the broader market in 2016.
Murakami’s auction revenue last year was 80% of his 2015 total ($8.4m in 2015; $6.7m in 2016). And, Miss KO2 returned once again to the market in April, selling for $2.9m at Sotheby’s Hong Kong (est. $1.9m-$2.6m), a significant drop on the 2008 record. But, it is worth bearing in mind that the overall market took a tumble in the same period—and for many artists, the fall was far more precipitous. And, the average lot value is beyond 2008 levels ($525,000 in 2017; $475,000 in 2008).
Significantly, every Murakami work offered in 2016 sold at an average of 111% of the low estimate, which was the first time since 2013 that the average lot out-performed expectations. And this year, 45% of all bidders on Murakami’s work at Sotheby’s were new. “There is a deep re-evaluation happening now,” Blum says. “There is a growing group of people who think his market is undervalued.”
It is easy—but misguided—to write off the importance of Murakami’s work. Previously pinned as an exuberant poster boy for the boom years, Murakami’s work “in fact very thoughtful, intelligent and complex—even when it may seem cartoonishly simple,” says Allan Schwartzman. “To me, Murakami is exactly the kind of artist for whom prices may dip when the world feels challenged and tastes in art become more sober. But those times represent a great opportunity for collectors because the complexity of Murakami’s work will, no doubt, be better understood over time.”