Published: July 18, 2000
Online Bidding War Results in $74,750 Sum
What would you bid for “an undisputed landmark in the history of Japanese art”? If you are a major dealer of Japanese woodblock prints eyeing one of perhaps two existing accordion-bound copies of Utagawa Hiroshige’s “Fifty-three stations of the Tokaido Road,” the high side of the estimated $50,000 to $80,000 value might not seem unreasonable.
In a war of mice, clicking against another online bidder literally down to the final seconds of ewolf.com’s Book, Map and Print Auction on July 7, Bill and Roberta Stein, owners of The Floating World Gallery in Chicago came out on top.
The Steins’ outlay of $74,750 makes them the first American dealers ever to own the circa 1833 Hiroshige.
“It was down to two bidders at the end who were back and forth,” said Rayleen Nanni, ewolfs.com’s director of marketing and public relations. “That final bid came in probably at the last second; literally a second before the lot closed, the [winning] bid came in.”
The interest generated by this album can be attributed not only to its rarity – a Tokyo bank’s Hiroshige gallery is the only other place Nanni could find where 55 original prints of the “Fifty-three stations” still exist together, and in excellent shape at that – but also its subject matter. According to Dr. Marianne Berardi, scholar-in-residence at ewolfs.com, the Tokaido Road, a north-south artery linking Tokyo with Kyoto, “possesses a kind of mythology that we in the United States associate with our long highways, such as Route 66, or … Route 1.”
Today’s Tokaido Road, she notes, like Route 1 “is entirely built up – a victim of urban sprawl. Hirosige’s romantic views of the Road are records of a past time. For this reason, too, his masterpiece is a work of extraordinary cultural value.”
Hiroshige created his woodcut plates from scenes he witnessed as he walked the entire 400-plus kilometers of the road. Writes Berardi, “He presented the unvarnished truth of everyday life in unforgettable, exciting prints” such as a voyeuristic view into private rooms in a home and a kite blowing away through the upper border of print 27.
The Fairbanks family of Boston, whose Nineteenth Century shipping empire extended to the Far East, says Berardi, brought this Hiroshige piece to the United States. A descendant, Margaret Wheeler Fairbanks Marcus, then moved it to Cleveland, where she was assistant to Sherman Lee, director of The Cleveland Museum of Art. She subsequently gave it to James Anthony Birch, the museum’s curator of education, and it was his estate that consigned it at ewolfs.com.
“The history suggests to me what will happen to it in the future,” Berardi predicts. Although a museum could pursue it, she believes a private collector will ultimately acquire it from the Steins, because “it’s the kind of thing a private collector would go crazy for,” and because it is difficult to exhibit publicly. “It’s bound – it’s not something that could be framed.”
The rarity of the piece, and its condition, both largely due to the fact that the prints are bound together, leads Berardi to believe that whoever purchases the album from Floating World Gallery will keep it that way.
“I think at this point somebody would be extremely foolish to break it up,” she notes. “My heart would break.”
Another bidding war …
A circa1826 “Map of the Western Reserve,” also hotly contested in ewolfs.com’s July auction, sold for more than $10,000, far above its estimated $2/4,000.
The Western Reserve, at that time owned by the state of Connecticut, is now part of the state of Ohio. Regional Americana pieces have inspired a lot of interest on the site, Nanni says, noting that “there was a pretty intense bidding war” as the lot’s closing time approached.
“The highest price [our experts] ever saw something like this sell for was in the $4,000 range,” Nanni says.
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