Considered one of Japan’s most important artists alive today, Yoshitomo Nara has had a slow burn of a career. He is known for his images of menacing wide-eyed Manga-style children that tap into universal angst. The inspiration for these works, which he first began in the ’90s, ranges vastly, drawing disparate sources from rock music to children’s fables to Japanese cartoons and more. New York Times critic Roberta Smith once described his works as bridging “high, low and kitsch; East and West; grown-up, adolescent and infantile.”
Nara is currently the subject of a career retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (through January 2022) that is set to travel to Shanghai, Spain, and the Netherlands. The exhibition is the largest one dedicated to the artist in the U.S. to date, and features 100 paintings, sculptures, drawings, ceramics, and more.
In recent years, an uptick in attention from critics and art historians has also fueled Nara’s fast rise on the art market. In 2019, Sotheby’s sold his Knife Behind Back (2000) for a record-setting $25 million in Hong Kong. Since that sale, he has become one of the most expensive artists in Asia and an in-demand staple in international contemporary art auctions.
Below, a list of Nara’s top auction prices:
Not Everything But/Green House, 2009
Sold for $5.1 million
In October 2019, one of Nara’s mixed-media installations hit the auction block, going for a record price. Standing 23 feet tall, Nara’s Not Everything But / Green House (2009) sold for HKD 40 million ($5.1 million), double its estimate of HKD 20 million ($2.6 million). Combining elements from Western media and the artist’s own childhood, the installation centers on a playhouse with an exaggerated cone-shaped roof, resembling something out of a fairy tale. A further look inside the toy-like structure reveals a painting of a wide-eyed protagonist enshrined on the wall, overlooking a pile of stuffed animals.
Hothouse Doll, 1995
Sold for $13.3 million
In December 2020, Phillips and China-based Poly Auction joined forces to auction Nara’s seminal Hothouse Doll (1995) in a collaborative live-streamed evening sale staged between the two houses’ respective headquarters in Hong Kong and Beijing. Seven bidders vied for the work before it went for HKD 103 million ($13.3 million), doubling its pre-sale estimate of $6 million. Nara made the painting in the same year he had first two breakout exhibitions at Tokyo’s SCAI The Bathhouse gallery and Blum & Poe gallery in Los Angeles. Before the blockbuster Phillips-Poly sale, Hothouse Doll appeared at auction in a Christie’s New York contemporary art day sale in 2008, where it sold for just $769,000, against an estimate of $300,000.
Berlin Barrack, Room 1, 2007
Sold for $15.4 million
In April 2021, another of Nara’s mixed-media installations, comprising an 8.5-foot-tall wooden house, sold at Chinese auction house Poly Auction during a Hong Kong sale for HKD 120 million ($15.4 million). Mimicking the style and size of a traditional Japanese tea room, the installation also features inside a version of his 1995 painting Hothouse Doll (also featured on this list). On the exterior, Three Sisters (Berlin Version), also from 2007, featuring a trio of his cartoon protagonists mid-play, is propped up as a sign flanking the miniature home. The installation last sold at auction at Christie’s Hong Kong in 2012, where it went for HKD 11.3 million ($1.5 million).
Missing in Action, 2000
Sold for $15.9 million
In June 2021, just months after Nara’s retrospective exhibition opened at LACMA, Missing in Action (2000), which features the artist’s signature cherubic protagonist, fetched HKD 123.7 million ($15.9 million), achieving the second- highest auction price for the artist. It was also the third most expensive lot overall in a Phillips evening sale in Hong Kong. The work last sold at a Phillips London evening sale in 2015 from the estate of Miami-based collector Frederic Brandt, where it was purchased by an Asia-based collector for $2.8 million, then a new auction record for Nara.
Knife Behind Back, 2000
Sold for $25 million
In October 2019, during a contemporary art evening sale in Hong Kong, Sotheby’s set a new record at auction for the Japanese artist when it sold Knife Behind Back (2000) for a staggering HKD 195.7 million ($25 million). Measuring seven by six feet, the work features Nara’s recurring protagonist—a disgruntled young girl with wide-set eyes in a red dress with Peter Pan collar. The work’s playful title suggests the child is brandishing a concealed weapon. Estimated at $6.4 million when it hit the auction block, it eventually went to a Hong Kong buyer on the phone after a ten-minute spar among six phone bidders.