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Two Japanese masterpieces rescued from rusting hulk in harbour to be sold at Bonhams
Kitaoji Rosanjin, 'Mount Fuji at Sunrise', 1953. 112 x 207 cm. (old surface damage). Est: £120,000-150,000. Photo: Bonhams.

LONDON.- Two important fully-documented works by the major 20th century Japanese artist, Kitaoji Rosanjin (1883–1959), that were found, long forgotten, in the darkness of a rusting tanker in a Portuguese shipyard, will be offered at Bonhams 7 November auction of Fine Japanese Art in London. They are together expected to sell for over £1,000,000.

The paintings are the unique master works of one of the most famous artists of 20th century Japan, Kitaoji Rosanjin. In 1952, at the age of 70, Rosanjin accepted a commission to decorate the walls of the dining hall of the Panamanian-owned, Andrew Dillon, the largest ship to be built in post-war Japan. For this purpose, he created in mixed media, mainly oil, two wall-sized compositions, ‘Sakura’ and ‘Fuji’.

Working onsite with tremendous energy and at a frenetic pace in the ship as they finished building it around him, Rosanjin completed Sakura in 20 days and Fuji in only five. Both works were exhibited at Takashimaya Department Store in May 1953, after which they were re-installed in the ship and left Japan for the next 56 years.

Although the commissioning of these two masterworks, their exhibition at Takashimaya, and their installation in the Andrew Dillon are well documented in the standard books on Rosanjin, they soon fell into relative obscurity.

The Andrew Dillon changed ownership and flag a number of times, and eventually found its way to Portugal where it was refitted as a cleaning ship in Lisbon harbour in the beginning of 1972. As the ship was about to be broken up in 1980, the screens were rediscovered and preserved on the orders of the shipyard’s owner, José Manuel de Mello. In 2000 they were installed in the main meeting rooms at his company’s head office in Lisbon and in 2009, the fiftieth anniversary of Rosanjin’s death, they made a triumphant homecoming as part of a season of celebrations marking the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Peace, Friendship, and Commerce between Portugal and Japan.

Rosanjin was born Fusajiro Kitaoji in Kyoto, into the household of the Head-Priest of one of the city’s most sacred shrines. He began his journey into the arts at the age of six, when his father committed ritual suicide after learning that the boy was the product of one of his wife’s adulterous liaisons. In the wake of this tragedy, Rosanjin was apprenticed to and adopted by a local wood-block engraver.

In 1903 Rosanjin moved to Tokyo to study calligraphy, and won first prize in the Japan Art Academy Contest the next year. In 1905 he was accepted as an apprentice to the noted calligraphy master Okamoto Katei, who sent him to China for further study.

In 1919 he opened an art shop in Tokyo, and in 1920 he founded the Gourmet's Club on the second floor of the store, serving food in traditional ceramic vessels that he had himself collected. Disaster struck in 1923 when his collection was destroyed in the Great Tokyo Earthquake. In order to replace his precious lost collection, Rosanjin begun to create pottery. It is for his contributions to the revival of Japanese ceramic art that he is perhaps best remembered, alongside his celebrated Hoshigaoka (Star Hill) restaurant which combined innovative haute cuisine with tableware he made and decorated himself in myriad styles.

In the years following World War II, Rosanjin endured great privations that were made all the worse thanks to his bon vivant lifestyle and inveterate art-collecting habit, so in December 1952 he was delighted to receive the unexpected commission to decorate the Andrew Dillon. Despite his privations, when he was nominated one year after the commission for the status of Living National Treasure, he refused.

These two works appear to be the first such pieces by Rosanjin ever offered at public auction. They will be among the highlights of Bonhams sales during this year’s Asian Art in London season (31 October-9 November), during which Bonhams will also be offering Part IV of the Edward Wrangham Collection of Japanese Art.

Colin Sheaf, Chairman of Bonhams Asia, said: “We are especially proud that these masterpieces have been consigned to Bonhams in recognition of our leading global role as auctioneers of Japanese art. Kitaoji Rosanjin was an extraordinary artist as well as an extraordinary human being, and his flamboyant personality and acute aesthetic sense are fully expressed in these two spirited and beautiful works.”

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