The iconic Japanese woodblock print “The Great Wave” (1830–1832) broke records at auction when it sold for nearly $2.8 million on Tuesday, March 21. Christie’s had originally set the price estimate between $500,000 and $700,000. The print’s final selling price was higher than that of any previously auctioned Hokusai piece.
Created by master engraver Katsushika Hokusai and formally titled “Under the Wave off Kanagawa,” the print Christie’s auctioned was one of the highest-quality versions in circulation not already acquired by a museum. This early impression featured sharp lines in the rolling waves and clear demarcations between the sky and cloud formations.
“The recent record-breaking auction of ‘The Great Wave’ print is of a rare and very early impression of the print, and of one of the best impressions of this print in existence,” Jacqueline Chao, an Asian Art curator at the Dallas Museum of Art, confirmed to Hyperallergic.
The artwork’s renown, impeccable condition, and inviting low estimate created the perfect storm for a record-breaking auction, potentially attracting a wider array of buyers. While experts estimate there may have been as many as 8,000, no more than 200 original prints remain, making the version auctioned at Christie’s all the more remarkable.
“With the ‘Great Wave,’ new buyers come out of the blue,” Takaaki Murakami, head of Japanese and Korean art at Christie’s New York, told the Wall Street Journal. Some dealers wonder whether the sale points to increased interest from younger or newer collectors in well-known prints like Hokusai’s.
Hokusai’s well-regarded work has maintained its prominence over the centuries. Reproductions of “The Great Wave” have been printed on t-shirts, turned into iOS emojis (🌊), recreated as Lego sets, and featured on the cover of the 2022 novel Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin. Within his lifetime, Claude Monet acquired 23 prints and displayed many on the walls of his house in Giverny. Some artworks inspired by Hokusai’s wave include “The Starry Night” (1889) by Vincent van Gogh, “Drowning Girl” (1963) by Roy Lichtenstein, and “Untitled (Wave)” (2005/2006) by Peter Soriano; the latter two will be part of the forthcoming exhibition Hokusai: Inspiration and Influence at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston, slated to open on March 26. In 2020, manga artist Araki Hirohiko created the poster “The Sky above The Great Wave off the Coast of Kanagawa,” which features the wave, for the Paralympics in Tokyo.
This piece was the first print in the Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji series, a study of Japan’s mountain and active volcano. Created during the Edo period (1603–1867) in Japan’s history using a woodblock printing style called Ukiyo-e, this generally inexpensive print was designed to be mass-produced and would have cost the same price as a typically cheap meal like a bowl of noodle soup. While popular decorations, woodblock prints like Hokusai’s were not considered fine art during their time. Still, “The Great Wave” stood out when Hokusai first printed the artwork for its use of Prussian blue, a new synthetic dye imported from China and the Netherlands that resisted fading, unlike indigo or dayflower blues. The whole Fuji series was a best-selling success at the time, expanding the genre’s subjects to include landscapes.
In the print, rowers battle monumental waves threatening to crash as the snow-capped Mount Fuji stands in the distance. Curator of MFA Boston’s Hokusai exhibition Sarah Thompson told Hyperallergic that the wave can symbolize the dichotomy of beauty and terror in nature or serve as a metaphor for overwhelming emotion while the mountain, a sacred place in Japanese culture, could mean hope. Thompson supposes that the strong narrative component of the print continues to make “The Great Wave” so popular.
“Will those three little boats get home safely, or are they doomed? You can be either optimistic or pessimistic about that; personally, I think they will make it,” she said.