Japanese masterpieces found in Portuguese harbour

Two important fully-documented works by the great 20th century Japanese artist, Kitaoji Rosanjin (1883–1959), that were found in a rusting tanker in a Portuguese shipyard, will be offered at Bonhams’ November auction of Fine Japanese Art in London. They are together expected to sell for more than €1.2 million.

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 largest ship to be built in post-war Japan, the Panamanian-owned Andrew Dillon. For this purpose, he created two wall-sized compositions, Sakura and Fuji.

These two works appear to be the first such pieces by Rosanjin ever offered at public auction. They will be among the highlights of the British auction house sales during this year’s Asian Art in London season (31 October-9 November).

“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,” said Colin Sheaf, chairman of Bonhams Asia, to the company’s in-house magazine.

Rosanjin’s ‘Mount Fuji at Sunrise’
Rosanjin’s ‘Mount Fuji at Sunrise’

The two masterpieces were completed in record time, with Sakura taking 20 days to finish and Fuji only five. Having been exhibited at Takashimaya Department Store in May 1953, the two artworks were then re-installed in the ship and left Japan for the next 56 years.

After changing ownership several times, the Andrew Dillon was eventually brought to Portugal and converted into a cleaning ship in the Lisbon harbour at the beginning of 1972. Eight years later, as it 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. However, it was only two decades later that they were returned to their former glory and installed in the main meeting room of his company’s head office in Lisbon.

In 2009, the date of the 50th anniversary of Rosanjin’s death, Sakura and Fuji 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.

Born in Kyoto as Fusajiro Kitaoji, Rosanjin began his journey into the art world at the tender age of six, when he was adopted by a local wood-block engraver after his father committed ritual suicide following the revelation that the boy was the result of one of his wife’s affairs.