The high end market for prints: focus on Hokusai’s Great Wave


Matisse and Picasso, Haring and Basquiat, Warhol, Richter and Banksy… the year’s top-selling prints have shown a distinct preference for Modern & Contemporary works over ‘historical’ works. Indeed, the appeal of the new is perfectly illustrated by the fact that the year’s highest price in this medium so far is for a work by Banksy, beating the results hammered for works signed Warhol, Basquiat, Matisse and even Picasso. Banksy’s latest auction record (in prints) now stands at $2.8 million for his Girl with Balloon, its value now exceeding the market value of Andy Warhol’s Flowers (1970).

Indeed, market preferences appear to be moving rapidly towards younger artists more in tune with our times. That said, we shouldn’t forget that Girl with Balloon is a very special case having become one of the most emblematic “images” on the entire global art market. On 14 October, the (unique) painted version of Girl with Balloon fetched a record price of $25.4 million, three years after its partial self-destruction during a Sotheby’s sale (see our article: The world’s top-selling living artist, Banksy returns to the limelight in October).

The 10 most expensive prints in 2021 (January to end-October)


The Great Wave off Kanagawa: the most ‘contemporary’ of ‘old’ works

Only the Japanese master Hokusai ranks among this year’s top results (January-October 2021) with an iconic work that happens to be one of the most famous images in the world – the Great Wave off Kanagawa. A few months ago in New York, a rare print of the work (dated circa 1831) sold for a record price of $1.59 million, mor than ten times it’s low estimate of $150,000.

In terms of dates, Hokusai (1760-1849) certainly belongs to the ‘Old Masters’ category, but the incredible modernity of the work clearly had a decisive influence on the development of European art, notably via Vincent Van Gogh and Claude Monet. The Great Wave is also very present in Contemporary popular culture, whether in the form of derivative products or as a well-known emoticon. It is therefore difficult to classify the Great Wave off Kanagawa as an ‘old’ work because it is so very much ‘alive’ today.

Best year ever for Hokusai at auction (auction results, copyright


Hokusai… NFT version

Nearly two centuries after its creation, Hokusai’s Great Wave has also been edited as an NFT with the seal of the British Museum and the collaboration of a French start-up called On 30 September last, the British Museum embarked on the production of 200 NFTs based on works by Hokusai to accompany its exhibition ‘Hokusai: The Great Picture of Everything’, open until 30 January 2022.

The works have been produced and classified into different categories according to their rarity (i.e. the number of NFTs created per image). The Great Wave off Kanagawa number 1/10 (“super rare” category) reached the price of $45,000 (10.6 ETH).

This first success confirms the emergence of a demand for digital works ‘stamped’ by major museums. Undeniably, the production of NFTs by the British Museum, the Hermitage or the Uffizi (first major museum to publish an NFT from its collections with a digital version of Michelangelo’s Tondo Doni ) not only brings a certain legitimacy to the NFT market, it also generates cash flow after the economic losses caused by the long periods of museum closures during lockdowns. Moreover, the scheme has been designed to generate cash going forward since it is stipulated that future resales of these NFTs on the secondary market shall trigger the payment of commissions to their producers (10% to the British Museum and 3% to

An increasingly buoyant market in the future?

At the start of November 2021, with an auction turnover total already over $6 million, Hokusai is among the top 200 global artists on the global art market, all creative media combined.

The $1.59 million record hammered last March in New York for the rare print of The Great Wave accounts for over a quarter of this total, but demand appears to be particularly strong for any good print by Hokusai. In fact, over the last five years, the number of his works sold at auction has nearly tripled compared with the activity recorded before 2017.

In all likelihood, Hokusai’s arrival in the NFT market via the British Museum’s recent productions will also boost demand in the traditional auction market. Indeed, the Hokusai NFTs reach a wider clientele, notably younger buyers and followers of digital art. These new buyers were certainly familiar with the iconic image of the Great Wave off Kanagawa, but they may not have been aware of the importance of Hokusai in Art History. They may not, therefore, have been inclined a priori to manifest an interest in the artist’s ‘physical’ works before going through the digital market… Only the future will tell if the early buyers of NFTs will subsequently participate in the market for tangible works.


36 Views of Mount Fuji

The Great Wave off Kanagawa is part of a series called the 36 Views of Mount Fuji, which Hokusai began in around 1830 as he neared his eighth decade and at the height of his career. The series of woodcuts depicts Mount Fuji, Japan’s highest mountain from different perspectives and subject to a variety of weather conditions. Hokusai later added 10 more prints to the set, bringing the total to 46, and several years later he completed a second volume of 100 views of the mountain.