Slow Sales at Tokyo Gendai Suggest Realizing Japan’s Potential Will Be an Uphill Battle

Despite a crowded VIP and press preview, the art fair brought mixed results for local and international exhibitors.

Two visitors standing in front of a white canvas punctuated by floral-like motifs
Xu Ning, Life, Love, 2024; Oil on canvas. Tokyo Gendai, courtesy of Tomio Koyama Gallery (Hana ‘Flower’)

The second edition of Tokyo Gendai closed yesterday (July 7) and, despite an exciting start with a well-attended and crowded VIP and press preview, local and international exhibitors reported mixed results. While no doubt somewhat disappointing for all involved, we can contextualize this as part of a broader art world moment: in the same days, sales were also slow at Art Montecarlo, as dealers reported to Observer. Current conditions are more about a change of pace in the contemporary art market; in that case, it’s more interesting to observe where there might still be untapped opportunities that could lead to further growth and to identify where the market seems way too saturated and stiff, as most recently, Europe and the U.S. might have felt.

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At a cocktail reception the night before Tokyo Gendai’s opening day, Magnus Renfrew, co-founder of the fair and of Art SG and Art Taipei, told Observer that the art fair is “playing a big role in Japan’s art scene, both to provide a more international platform to present the local talents and, more importantly, to introduce and educate the local audience to a more global art scene.” This is, of course, something that will take time.

During openings at TERRADA ART COMPLEX, a new art district with a roster of galleries including some prominent names like Kotaro Nukaga or SCAI, we had a chance to ask Yuichiro Kameyama, a young specialist at New Auction, for a local perspective on the Japanese art scene. Their calendar is getting busier and busier, he told Observer, with three auctions for Modern and contemporary per year always attracting active bidding, and they’re trying to introduce a more global offer across Asia as well as bringing in rising names in the modern international art scene. Meanwhile, the Tennoz district, a new rising development project on the Tokyo waterfront, recently organized its first art week, supported by TERRADA.

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As we previously reported, the Tokyo Gendai opening was very well attended: across aisles, we were able to spot some of the foremost collectors in the country, including Ryutaro Takahashi, Miwa Taguchi, Yoshiko Mori; Hideaki Fukutake, Takeo Obayashiand Howard, Cindy Rachofsky, Shin Takeuchi and Naoko Sasagawa. If this didn’t translate into immediate sales, that was to be expected as that’s also the prevailing dynamic at more and more of today’s art fairs in Asia and elsewhere.

That said, dealers from several galleries reported some notable sales, including ceramics sculptures (priced at $2,500-5,000) by Tomonari Hashimoto presented by the fast-rising gallery PARCEL and three works by Mexican artist Josè Davila that THE PILL® (Istanbul) was able to sell during the preview. By Sunday, local powerhouse KOTARO NUKAGA (Tokyo) had sold twelve works, including a large-scale work by Japanese visual artist Tomokazu Matsuyama titled Stain Gentle Words to a collector, and Each Modern (Taiwan) sold works by five artists to collectors from China, Japan and Europe, with sale prices ranging from $3,200 to $43,000. Sales were also reported at medium- and small-tier galleries, with Retro Africa (Nigeria), which sold five works, including two sculptural tapestry pieces by multi-award-winning Nigerian artist Samuel Nnorom for $10,000 and $17,000 to Japanese collectors. HARUKAITO by ISLAND (Tokyo, Atami) sold twenty-five pieces ranging from $3,110 to $9,331.

Pace gallery's installation view with sculptures and pantings
Pace Tokyo’s group installation at Tokyo Gendai. Courtesy Pace Gallery

BLUM, which has had a location in Tokyo for years and has been exploring the local market, had reps chatting in fluent Japanese with local fair-goers when Observer passed by. Later, a representative from the gallery confirmed that they could place one of their top pieces on the first day: a magnificent Yoshitomo Nara priced at $180,000, as well as other works in the five—and six-digit price range. The gallery also reported the sale of a 2024 work on canvas by Kenjiro Okazaki for $160,000.

Marie Imai Kobayashi, director in Tokyo of BLUM (Los Angeles, New York, Tokyo), said that, nonetheless, the “fair provides them great opportunities to meet new, local collectors.” However, it also depends on what you bring and how you present it, as Shanghai-based Nan Ke Gallery’s heavily curated booth resulted in some excellent placements, with some works acquired during the preview and four more on the last day. Meanwhile, Pace celebrated its soft opening, placing in the $300,000 range several works by American artist Robert Longo, which ended up being some of the most expensive works at the fair (top prices hit about $750,000).

Other results came toward the end, as Sundaram Tagore Gallery (New York) sold three works by Hiroshi Senju on Sunday, including Waterfall on Colors, 2024, which sold for between $385,000 and $570,000. Tomio Koyama Gallery (Tokyo), in the sector Hana ‘Flower’, had a sell-out show of works by Beijing artist, Xu Ning. Keteleer Gallery (Belgium) eventually sold the final available edition of an iconic work by Lois Weinberger titled What Is Beyond Plants Is At One With Them, documenta X, 1997, to a French-Japanese collector, priced around €30,000; KOTARO NUKAGA (Tokyo) sold twelve works during the fair, including a large-scale piece by Japanese visual artist Tomokazu Matsuyama titled Stain Gentle Words, 2024, and Each Modern (Taiwan) sold works by five artists to collectors from China, Japan and Europe with prices ranging from $3,200 to $43,000.

Another international gallery that has been in the Japanese city for a while, Fergus Mccaffrey,  didn’t participate this year as they were in Basel and wanted to focus on the museum-quality Anselm Kiefer’s show now on view at the gallery. However, with the growth of the fair both in quality and attendance, they might consider participating next year. Meanwhile, another French gallery at the fair, Ceysson & Bénétière, announced last February that they would open in Tokyo their first Asian outpost in a 3,500-square-foot space in Cura Ginza tower, while Perrotin just opened an additional space in the Piramide complex, Perrotin Salon, which Perrotin founder Emmanuel Perrotin said in a statement “is not only meant to spark dialogues within the Japanese art scene but will also inspire the gallery as a whole.”

Buyers now are more cautious in general, and Japanese collectors have tended to be that way—at least in recent history—but it’s about more than economic caution. Younger collectors may be less hesitant about splurging on quality pieces that truly resonate with them even as they’re more likely to consider issues of gender, identity and politics when shopping. But either way, collectors were still out in force at Tokyo Gendai and still buying (particularly a significant number of collectors visiting from mainland China).

View of Perrotin Gallery booth at Tokyo Gendai
Perrotin brought work by Jens Fänge, John Henderson, Thilo Heinzmann and Seyni Awa Camara to Tokyo Gendai 2024. Katsura Komiyama

In comparison, art lovers from the Asia region take the same trip in the other direction to get to Art Basel, which can only boast two or three major museums to visit after the fair. Also, just looking at their contemporary exhibitions program doesn’t feel as dynamic and exciting as some of the capitals of Asia are trying to offer, intersecting the global contemporary. The quality of the shows in Japan in particular proves the country’s willingness to do what it takes to get back on the art market map, while also writing modern and contemporary art history within a more global perspective of exchange.

Meanwhile, tax policies are always critical factors in defining if there will be concrete market opportunities in a country, especially when it comes to foreign investments and global trade. Japan just last year made a significant (and necessary) change for the import of art that makes it easier for galleries to enter the market: all art imported for sale in Japan, for instance at Gendai, is now subjected to a “bonded status,” meaning dealers will pay the 10 percent import tax only if they sell. This significantly reduces the risk of participating, despite, as confirmed by some of the dealers, the investment required being pretty high for an international small/medium-sized gallery, with shipping and a fair participation fee that, at its lowest tier, is already aligned with global counterparts like Frieze or Art Basel in the emerging section (around $20,000). These new policies must have also smoothed the way for mega gallery Pace to open its central location in the Japanese capital within the futuristically luxurious complex of Azabudai Hills.

Installation view of balck and white works on paper by Robert Longo presented by Pace gallery at Tokyo Gendai.
An installation view of works by Robert Longo at Pace Gallery’s Tokyo Gendai 2024 booth. © Robert Longo / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Photo: Yulia Skogoreva, courtesy Pace Gallery

Meanwhile, as Renfrew told Observer on the last day, this latest edition of Tokyo Gendai may have done enough to support its move to a more accessible date on the art fair calendar—possibly one coinciding with another close fair to attract more people to the region. Indeed, the press release on July 8 revealed that the next edition of Tokyo Gendai will take place over September 12-14, 2025, with a VIP preview and vernissage on September 11 (the week after Frieze Seoul, assuming that isn’t moved).

“Tokyo Gendai was a super-effective catalyst for bringing together Japan’s most important collectors and curators—giving us an opportunity to convene and celebrate,” said Marc Glimcher in a statement to Observer. “We were thrilled to finish the week with a sold-out booth in local collections.” If nothing else, events like Tokyo Gendai at least force us to get out of the American/European bubble and to consider the perspectives and dynamics in other countries that are now trying to get, or get back, into the global geography of art.

Slow Sales at Tokyo Gendai Suggest Realizing Japan’s Potential Will Be an Uphill Battle