Kawanabe Kyosai's Hell Courtesan tops Leach auction with 16% increase

A recently rediscovered scroll painting by Kawanabe Kyosai (1831-1899), entitled Jigoku dayu (Hell Courtesan), has sold at the top of Christie's Asobi: Ingenious Creativity Japanese Works of Art from the Collection of Bernard Leach sale.

Kawanabe Kyosai Hell Courtesan scroll painting
The work is the finest of seven known versions

The piece had been lost for over half a century, and is a stunning example of Kyosai's work, which dominated the latter half of Japan's 19th century art scene "as decisively as Katsushika Hokusai had its first half", according to Christie's.

A magnificent hanging scroll in ink, colour and gold on silk, it sold for £578,500 ($923,865), making a 15.7% increase on its £300,000-500,000 estimate at the October 15 auction in London.

The work was previously only known from two black and white images taken in 1911 and 1941, but was recently discovered in remarkable condition hidden away in a drawer.

It is known to have been last sold in Copenhagen in 1942, and was immediately stashed by the buyer, passing to the present vendor by descent.

This example is one of six works that were acquired by British architect Josiah Conder (1852-1920) as he travelled to Japan to teach in 1877. The architect and artist developed a special relationship, and Conder was at Kyosai's side when he died.

The subject of the hell courtesan is one that Kyosai frequently visited throughout his career. The British Museum acknowledged that this rendition is the most accomplished of the seven known examples during its exhibition of the artist's work.

Further sales of Japanese art will be held by Bonhams in November, with two paintings by Kitanjoi Rosanjin expected to sell for a combined $1.6m.

Bernard Leach (1887-1979) is known as the father of British studio pottery. The collection of Japanese art and ceramics featured in the auction was found hidden away in his attic in St Ives when he passed away.

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