Amid a Feverish Market for Her Prismatic Paintings, Japanese Art Dynamo Etsu Egami Is Keeping a Cool Head

It’s only a few weeks into 2023, but Etsu Egami can already confirm that it has been a great year.

The 28-year-old artist just returned home to Chiba, Japan, after her sold-out solo exhibition soft-opened Whitestone Gallery’s new space in Singapore during the city’s art week; her works on show at the Taiwanese gallery’s booth at the recent ART SG also found eager buyers. She is now back in her studio in her hometown, busy preparing for a series of upcoming museum projects and showcases locally and abroad. Indeed, Egami is already looking at a full schedule in the coming weeks and months, and her eyes are set on the global stage.

“I want more Japanese artists, woman artists, and Asian artists to be seen in the international art world,” Egami said of her strong motivation to go global, speaking to Midnight Publishing Group News via a video call from her studio.

While there have been a lot of great artists from Japan and Asia throughout history, she noted, the number of them known internationally remains small. Having featured in exhibitions for nearly a decade, and reaching notable acclaim—including a spot on the Forbes Asia 30 Under 30 list in 2021—Egami’s fierce determination to develop a career outside of Japan “is only natural.”

Etsu Egami

Etsu Egami at artist talk with curator Tan Siuli at the opening of her solo show at Whitestone Gallery Singapore. Courtesy of Whitestone Gallery.

Japan’s Ascendant Star

By the sounds of things (and with a look at the data), going global is going to be a very achievable new year’s resolution—her hard work is already paying off. Egami’s paintings, created with thick lines of colorful brushstrokes, have amassed a solid following since her debut in 2015; she has shown paintings in major art cities from Paris and New York to Seoul, Beijing, and Taipei.

Prices for her paintings floating in the secondary market have skyrocketed since 2021, making her one of the art market’s fastest-rising stars from Asia, widely recognized as a key artist of the third-generation postwar Japanese art. Her work has already entered the collection of institutions internationally, including CAFA Art Museum in Beijing, Moscow’s Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, and E-Land Foundation in Seoul.

But Egami’s rise in the market also means that she has also become a target of flippers—a fact that upsets the artist. According to data from the Midnight Publishing Group Price Database, most of her top 10 auction records were for works that had a three-year hold or less, including her current record, which stands at HK$2.9 million ($366,921; all sale prices include fees), for a 2021 diptych sold at Holly’s International (HK) Auctions’s sale in May of last year. This was followed by the sale of painting Rainbow-2022-t-10 at a Holly’s Hong Kong auction in November 2022. The work, which achieved HK$1.3 million ($168,931), had been exhibited at Tang Contemporary’s Seoul space only a few months prior. On Saturday, January 28, Japan’s SBI Art Auction will put a small 2021 painting up for sale. (The auction house gave the work a rather low-seeming presale estimate of ¥700,000 to ¥1.3 million ($5,100 to $9,400), but SBI appears to have a track record of holding their estimates to an approachable level.)

“[My artworks] are like my children, so I hope the work can stay with people for much longer,” Egami said when asked about how this heated secondary market affects her. She is working with her galleries to try to keep things under control: they have imposed a five-year non-selling agreement, and are extremely carefully to weed out uncommitted collectors.

She is grateful for the attention, though, and hopes that it is sustainable. “I really appreciate that people love my work and collecting it,” she said. “I hope people can see the messages in my work, why I make these works, and the stories behind them. I also hope more people can spend time with my work, allow their imagination to flourish, and show my work rather than just keep them in the storage. I want people to focus on my art.”

Etsu Egami Whitestone

Etsu Egami’s works at Whitestone Gallery’s booth at ART SG 2023. Courtesy of Whitestone Gallery.

International Influence

To understand Egami’s art, one must trace her practice back to her high-school days. Growing up about 25 miles east of the center of Tokyo, in 2008, she experienced a transformational change when she was exposed to Chinese contemporary art during the Beijing Olympics.

“It was a big shock to the Japanese art scene,” recalled Egami of the televised Olympics, which were hugely popular in Japan. It widened her view—she had grown up loving the work of Japanese modern painters such as Sotaro Yasui and Ryuzaburo Umehara. But, for a long time, she felt that there has been a gap between the Japanese pre- and postwar art, and the exposure to Chinese contemporary art was a light-bulb moment. “It seemed to bridge this gap,” she said.

She studied oil painting in China, at the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) in Beijing, before eventually completing her MFA there in 2019, studying under Chinese painter Liu Xiaodong, one of the key Chinese contemporary artists who was among the art market darlings about a decade ago when the genre was the most highly sought after from east Asia.

When she first studied abroad (in China, but also in Germany), she noted that experiences of culture shock and the miscommunications of being a foreigner deeply impacted her, especially those that went beyond words. Non-erbal cultural cues and subtexts puzzled her the most. “I realized that it was not a problem of language,” she noted. “Language is a tool of communication, but at the same time, it’s also the barrier.”

This miscommunication became a major source of inspiration in her paintings. Her style further evolved during a period spent in New York in 2020, as part of a Japanese governmental residency for outstanding artists. During those months, she witnessed the turbulent lockdowns, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the rise of targeted attacks against Asians.

These revelations brought about her ongoing “Rainbow” series. Some of the works from this series have sold well at auctions, according to Midnight Publishing Group Price Database records. “The importance of diversity and coexistence gave me the inspiration of the rainbow,” she said. “They are lines that do not mix with each other, but they are in various colors running parallel to each other. This is my single dream and hope, and has become my painting language.”

Etsu Egami

Etsu Egami, Rainbow-2022-W-42, on show at the artist’s solo exhibition “Incessant is the change of water where the stream glides on calmly: the spray appears over a cataract, yet vanishes without a moment’s delay” at Whitestone Gallery Singapore. Courtesy of Whitestone Gallery.

A Big New Year

This year will likely be a turning point. For one, a striking monumental diptych from her recent Singapore show with a title inspired by Japanese classical text Hōjōki, has been acquired by a foundation that is building a yet-to-be-announced private museum in Singapore. The work is a visual ode to honor the primitive nature and spirituality of feminine power through the artist’s signature brushstrokes in a warm color palette.

“I’m very happy about this,” the artist said of the major acquisition, adding that she also met a lot of collectors from the region during her time there, including those from Malaysia and Indonesia. “It’s nice that my work can be placed in a collection that will be open to the public,” she added.

And even though it is largely private buyers chasing her paintings, Egami’s work will nevertheless reach a wider audience in the coming year. The painting Rainbow-2021-T-1—the work that set her auction record—is included in the third edition of the China Xinjiang International Art Biennial, which opened earlier this month. She is also working to expand on her medium, and plans to spend a residency creating a site-specific audio-visual installation for a group show set to open in late February at the Museum of Modern Art in Japan’s Gunma prefecture. For this project, the artist researched the history of Daruma dolls, modeled after a Buddhist monk who was widely known as the founder of Zen Buddhism.

Also in the pipeline are institutional exhibitions, one planned for London during Frieze week next fall, and another at a yet-to-be-announced museum in Shanghai; at both, she plans to stretch beyond painting, including experiments with photography, sound, and sculpture. Her work will also make a fair presence at Art Basel Hong Kong and Art Geneva, both with Tang Contemporary, according to the artist.

But Egami is happy to let her representatives take care of sales while she delves deeper into her art. “The galleries will be handling the market side of things so that I can focus on my work that questions about society or my feelings,” Egami said. “I want to try something new.”

Etsu Egami

Installation view of “Incessant is the change of water where the stream glides on calmly: the spray appears over a cataract, yet vanishes without a moment’s delay,” solo exhibition of Etsu Egami at Whitestone Gallery Singapore. Courtesy of the artist.

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An NFT Marketplace Exec’s CryptoPunk Avatar Helped Web Sleuths Bust Him for Insider Trading

This week, a top executive at OpenSea, the largest marketplace for crypto collectibles, was revealed to have profited by using insider information to buy NFTs in advance of his company publicly promoting them. 

The platform’s head of product, Nate Chastain, used secret crypto wallets to purchase digital artworks before they were set to be featured on OpenSea’s home page—a form of promotion known to drive up the price of pieces. After the initial pop of interest, Chastain then sold the NFTs, funneling the earnings into a personal account.

In other words, he exploited his position to game the market in his favor. 

The dodgy activity was first called out on Twitter by user @ZuwuTVwho himself both buys NFTs and sells purposely pixelated images of landscapes as the “Pixelated Beauty” collection on OpenSea. The news spread online like wildfire. 

It was the fact that Chastain used a unique CryptoPunk as his Twitter avatar that allowed online sleuths to identify his wallet, which also contains the CryptoPunk. (It is CryptoPunk #3501, with a blue bandana and small sunglasses, purchased for 26.98 Ether—$43,842 at the time—on February 25, 2021.)

Screenshot of Nate Chastain's Twitter, featuring CryptoPunk #3501 as his avatar.

Screenshot of Nate Chastain’s Twitter, featuring CryptoPunk #3501 as his avatar.

OpenSea’s chief executive and co-founder, Devin Finzer, confirmed the report in a blog post this week. “This is incredibly disappointing,” he wrote. “We are taking this very seriously and are conducting an immediate and thorough third party review of this incident so that we have a full understanding of the facts and additional steps we need to take.” 

Chastain has since resigned, Finzer said. 

Technically speaking, the head of product’s actions weren’t illegal. The buying and selling of NFTs is not regulated by the Securities and Exchange Commission. Prior to the incident, OpenSea had no rules in place preventing such behavior. 

The latter point has since changed, though. In his post, Finzer said his company has now implemented policies that forbid employees from both exchanging NFTs while the site is featuring or promoting them and using confidential information to purchase or sell any collectibles, “whether available on the OpenSea platform or not.”

Still, the intense response to Chastain’s market machinations might come to be recognized as a turning point in the way we think about NFTs vis-à-vis traditional art.

“In the art world, if someone who worked at a gallery bought up an artist’s art before a big public opening, that would be… a normal Monday,” tweeted Felix Salmon, Axios’s Chief financial correspondent (and a previous Midnight Publishing Group News contributor, this week). 

“The fact that this kind of behavior is genuinely scandalous in the NFT world is a very good indication that NFTs are much closer to being securities than they are to being art,” he added.

Founded in 2017, OpenSea was valued at $1.5 billion this summer, following a $100 million Series B fundraising campaign. Representatives from the company did not immediately respond to Midnight Publishing Group News’s request for comment about the incident regarding Chastain.

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Damien Hirst’s NFT Initiative, Which Asks Buyers to Choose Between a Digital Token and IRL Art, Has Already Generated $25 Million

Earlier this summer, Damien Hirst announced his latest project: a showy NFT initiative called “The Currency.” It involved selling 10,000 unique hand-painted dot-covered works on paper, each one corresponding to a nonfungible token. But wait, there’s more.

Each of the hybrid print-NFTs, available to collectors at the low, low price of $2,000, has a very particular stipulation. Buyers would have one year to decide if they wanted to keep the NFT, in which case the physical artwork would be ceremonially burned. Or they could keep the physical work, and relinquish rights to the blockchain-based artwork.

In essence, “The Currency” pitted Hirst’s foray into the new world of digital art against his old-school practice, asking the art market to decide which was more valuable. (At the height of Hirst’s market heat in 2007, a work on paper by the artist sold for more than $393,065.)

At the time, it sure sounded like Hirst was, ahem, jumping the shark, with a philosophical gimmick, but just about two months into the project’s debut, the artist took to social media to announce that sales generated by “The Currency” have reached $25 million already.

The graph of Hirst's NFT sales from "The Currency." Courtesy of HENI.

The graph of Hirst’s NFT sales from “The Currency.” Courtesy of HENI.

A statement posted today to the Discord server by HENI Analytics, an arm of the company that partnered with Hirst on the project, broke down the sales for the past six, 12, and 24 hours for the NFT works. In the last 24 hours, 14 sales totaling almost $400,000 were recorded, with a maximum price of $43,204 and minimum price of $3,694.

Since the project launched in July, there have been a total of 1,571 sales on secondary market NFT platforms adding up to just a bit more than even the whopping eight-figure Hirst boasted about, at $26,345,475.

The maximum price paid so far sits at $120,614 for a work titled Yes, which is considered one of the rarer of the pieces in the series because it has a single word title. HENI ranks each of the works in “The Currency” for its rarity based on algorithms that analyze density of the spots, colors used, and what kind of words are in each title, which all come from Hirst’s favorite songs.

OpenSea’s public data on the project confirm the basic trends suggested by HENI and Hirst. It shows that the floor price (or lowest available price) for an NFT from “The Currency” sits at 8.8 ETH, or $28,500, more than 10 times its original price. (The OpenSea floor price is updated hourly.)

According to OpenSea snapshot of the project, by far the most active day in the trading history of “The Currency” was August 14, when 249 of the NFTs changed hands. In recent days things have settled down considerably, with anywhere between 10 and 20 sales per day.

One recent sale, for the work A Way of Life, was originally listed 10 days ago on the secondary market by its owner @Quality for 18.88 Ethereum (over $60,800). Finding no takers, it was re-listed a day later for 8.8 Ethereum (or $28,500). At that price it was sold to @syzygyfinance 8 days ago for 8.49 Ethereum ($27,200), which re-listed A Way of Life just two days later for 14.8 Ethereum (or $47,800).

Today @syzygyfinance adjusted its asking price down to 9.75 Ethereum ($31,300), and sold it at that price to @liquiddyor, realizing about $4,000 in profit on the flip.

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Art Basel Executive Noah Horowitz Is Joining Sotheby’s as a Gallery Whisperer, the Latest Sign of Collapsing Categories in the Industry

Ever since Noah Horowitz stepped down as Art Basel’s director of the Americas last month, the art world has been wondering where the intrepid executive would end up next.

The guessing game is over. Horowitz has jumped ship from the world of art fairs and landed at an auction house. He will join Sotheby’s on September 20 in the newly created role of worldwide head of gallery and private dealer services. He will report to Brooke Lampley, who was promoted earlier this year to become chairman and global head of sales for Sotheby’s fine art. 

Horowitz will focus on strategy and building Sotheby’s relationships with galleries and dealers, the company said. The news was first reported by Vanity Fair

The move comes during a moment of tectonic shifts in the art world as businesses try to figure out how to scale their operations and expand their client bases. Galleries such as David Zwirner and Johann König launched initiatives that aim to take market share from regional art fairs. Auction houses, which have been impinging into dealer territory for years with private sales, have more recently experimented with different models to inch their way into the primary market. 

During the beginning of the pandemic last spring, Sotheby’s launched a digital sales platform for galleries called Sotheby’s Gallery Network. As part of the deal, it received a flat commission based on sales, with all artworks available exclusively through the auction house’s website.

(Dealers have largely remained mum about their experience with the platform, though some admitted sales were minimal. Although the website currently lists 56 galleries as “participants,” it is unclear how many are actively involved. Only seven dealers had work listed at press time, none of which was part of the original blue-chip cohort when it first launched.)

In a statement, Lampley described “the importance of a healthy art market ecosystem in which auction houses, galleries, fairs, collectors and institutions all benefit from working together. With Noah’s arrival, we can serve the market at an even greater scale, by bringing together all the capabilities that Sotheby’s has to offer to foster creative and rewarding collaborations.”

Horowitz has worked closely with international galleries for at least a decade. Since 2015, he led Art Basel Miami Beach, the major contemporary art fair in the U.S. Prior to that, he turned around the struggling Armory Show during a four-year tenure as its executive director. In the process, he has gained the trust of many art dealers—a major asset considering that galleries typically regard auction houses with suspicion, if not outright disdain.

“I am thrilled for him,” said Tim Blum, co-owner of Blum & Poe gallery. “He’s somebody, who at the very least cares about artists and galleries. He’s not posturing. He spent a lot of time and energy traveling the world. He brings more authentic, grounded approach for Sotheby’s.”

Horowitz will also bring some firepower to Sotheby’s senior ranks, which have seen considerable turnover in the past year. “I’m enormously excited to be joining Sotheby’s at this decisive moment for our industry and look forward to leveraging the unique combination of talent, expertise, resources and digital know-how at hand towards creating a successful new offering for today’s international gallery and private dealer community,” Horowitz said in a statement.

Sotheby’s has tried to blur the lines between auctions and other services before. It launched, and then quietly shuttered in 2018, a division designed to advise artists’ estates, which some saw as an effort to impinge on galleries’ turf and creep into the primary market.

“If galleries are going to collaborate with anyone at the auction houses, it will be Noah bc of the quality of relationships he built during his time at Art Basel,” said Miami collector Dennis Scholl. “But it remains a competitive industry.”

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The Back Room: A Macro View of the Spring Auctions


2. For Blue-Chip Standbys, the Auction (Mostly) Happens Before the Auction

The presale period is when the houses field third-party offers to assume the risk (and upside) of the guarantees they’ve made to consignors. Once those back-room competitions play out, there’s seldom much demand left for the salesroom anymore.

At Christie’s, solid (if not spectacular) works by Gerhard RichterChristopher Wool, and Richard Prince sold to their guarantors with no outside resistance—often well beneath their low estimates. (Katya Kazakina’s latest column dug into these works and others consigned to Christie’s by private equity titan Thompson Dean.) In total, 16 of the 39 works in the sale were guaranteed, and most were backed by third parties.

In Sotheby’s contemporary segment, a classic Cy Twombly “blackboard” painting barely crept within presale estimate range by hammering at $36 million on one bid to its backer. Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Versus Medici hammered below its $50 million presale expectation. (Fees pushed it to $50.7 million.) Incidentally, nine of the 32 lots to reach the rostrum in this portion of the evening were guaranteed, with seven of the nine backed by third parties. (Two works were withdrawn presale, further reducing the drama.)

Sotheby’s Impressionist and Modern sale, largely defined by uneven bidding and few fireworks, counted 14 guarantees—11 of which had third-party backing.

The point: Many works seen as reliable stores of value (but not much more) are likely to be more in demand behind the scenes than in front of them anymore. This week’s sales did little to dispel that notion.