One Collector’s High Mountain Road to Hokusai

One Collector’s High Mountain Road to Hokusai

Jitendra V. Singh was nearly 60, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, when he finally bought his first woodblock print by the revered Japanese printmaker Katsushika Hokusai, whose work from the Edo 19th century includes a masterly series, “Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji.”

It was 2013, and Dr. Singh was enchanted by Hokusai’s view of the sacred mountain in Japan, central to each image in the artist’s series: sometimes dominant, sometimes in the background, but always present.

By then Dr. Singh had made three long trips into the Himalayas, gone high-altitude trekking on Mt. Everest, and journeyed to Mount Kailash in Tibet, which is sacred to Hindus.

“I have a thing about mountains,” Dr. Singh, now 70 and retired, said during an interview in his apartment in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “To me Hokusai captured the essence of the mountain.”

Fascination with Hokusai and his images has led Dr. Singh on a singular quest to assemble the entire “Thirty-Six Views” series (actually there are 46 images.) He completed that challenge in January 2023, and this week, he is selling the entire set at Christies. The estimate is $3 million to $5 million.

There are likely fewer than 10 complete collections that exist in the world. The series includes “Under the Well of the Great Wave Off Kanagawa,” from 1831, with Mount Fuji rising behind soaring claw-like blue waves enveloping the boats thrusting through them. It has become an iconic image, reproduced on coffee cups, sneakers and even curtains around the world. But treasured sets are mostly held by prominent museums including the Metropolitan Museum, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the British Museum and the Bibliothèque Nationale of France. A complete set sold at Sotheby’s for $1.47 million in 2002, though the buyer remains anonymous.

The series is considered the greatest work by the artist, who was born in 1760 and began working in woodblocks at a young age. He was an Ukiyo-e artist — famous for prints that celebrated the daily lives of people in the countryside and cities, their travels and the country’s serene landscapes in sumptuous colors and exquisite detail. (Ukiyo-e means “pictures of the floating world.”) When his work, along with that of other Ukiyo-e artists of that period, was discovered by French artists, they were infatuated. The Japanese artists and Hokusai in particular had an extraordinary influence on the Impressionists because, as one admirer wrote at the time, the work revealed “an unsuspected page in the great book of world art.” That influence became known as Japonisme.

Certainly Dr. Singh has been uncommonly focused on one aspect of one artist’s work. Still, he never put “Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji” on display at his former home near San Francisco.

“I have no desire to show them in my home and gloat over them,” he said. Instead he kept them hermetically sealed inside Japanese boxes. “They are far too delicate,” he said.

It was not simply the beauty of the prints that appealed to Dr. Singh, but the subject matter. As a religious Hindu, his mountain trips were emotionally powerful “because climbing the mountains is a metaphor for our lives,” he said. “We are all alone. If you strip away everything, life is a journey.”

His high mountain road to the Hokusai prints included his first, sacred pilgrimage to Tibet during the summer of 2006, a seven-day overland journey in Toyota Land Cruisers from Lhasa to Mount Kailash, “mostly on dirt roads, all at altitudes above 15,000 feet,” he said in an email, sending snapshots showing weeks of beard growth.

His circumambulation of Mount Kailash followed a ritual bath in melted glacier waters of Lake Manasarovar, a sacred lake in Hindu mythology, believed to be formed by Lord Brahma.“Bathing in the lake is said to liberate the worshiper from all the sins of all lifetimes,” he explained. “I thought I needed that bit of divine help.”

DR. SINGH DID NOT SEE his first Hokusai until he was in his 40s and traveling the world. He had grown up in Lucknow, a large city in northern India, one of 11 children from three marriages. “My father was a high-level civil servant,” he said. “Art was considered a frivolity in our house.”

Dr. Singh recalled that his town “had a fine high school quality library and I read lots of literature,” and he went on to get a full scholarship to Stanford Business School and a Ph.D. in his mid 20s. Flying home from Stanford via Tokyo to Delhi, he caught his first glimpse of Mount Fuji in the sunlight, he remembered. “It was the symbol of beauty and purity in its purest form.”

In 1990, he visited Japan, where the mother of a student from back in the United States gave him a high-quality print by Kawase Hasui, one of 20th-century Japan’s most celebrated printmakers, which included an image of a mountain. On his own, Dr. Singh settled for cheap reproductions of Hokusai’s “Great Wave Off Kanagawa” and the image known as “Red Fuji,” admiring the mountain’s red tint. “The Hokusais were stunning,” he remembered.

He hung the reproductions at his home in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Over the following years, Hokusai’s work grew on him. “I found them very stylized and beautiful in detail and composition,’’ he recalled, “whether it is the people, landscapes or the sea.” But he could never imagine buying one until 2011, when he had made some money in investments and was again visiting Tokyo. He asked a friend where he might buy more Hokusai prints and was sent to the Jimbocho neighborhood, where art galleries sell fine prints from the Ukiyo-e period.

At Mita Arts Gallery, he met Ken Caplan, its owner and confided that if he could afford it, “I would possibly like to buy the whole set.”

Thus began the final stage of his odyssey, which lasted more than 10 years. Caplan would send images of the prints as they became available. “It was very important to keep it secret,’’ Dr. Singh recalled. Otherwise sellers, sniffing an eager buyer, would raise prices.

His first purchase, in 2013, was “Fuji Seen From Kanaya on the Tokaido.” In 2014, 2015 and 2016, he bought three of the best known images in the series. All things being equal, he was told, the early impressions of any print are likely to be of better quality, although it is also the case that they may be damaged or faded. In all, he said, he spent about $3 million putting together the set.

As Dr. Singh came to know more about the artist, Hokusai’s long career and commitment to his art also impressed the collector, especially his self-reflections. Hokusai once said that though he had been sketching from the age of 6, “nothing I did before the age of 70 was worthy of attention.’’ If the statement was exaggerated, it was also prescient. The artist embarked on “Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji,” considered the summit of his own creativity, in 1830, when he was 70.

That also resonated with Dr. Singh. “He dedicated his life to art,” the collector mused. “It is a notion that we are born to perfect ourselves. That is a very Hindu notion.”

By 2018, Dr. Singh had collected 41 prints. “The last five were the hardest to find,’’ he remembered. “ I got the last one in January of 2023.” It was “Sazai Hall at the Temple of the Five Hundred Arhats” — a reference to the legendary disciples of Buddha — in which men and women in flowing robes stand on a temple balcony admiring Mount Fuji.

“I had reached my goal.”

As moved as he was by the art, he believed the investment in Hokusai would be a good ‘‘financial diversifier,’’ the professor said. Last year, after Christie’s sold a print of “Great Wave Off Kanagawa” for $2.8 million, a record for the artist, Dr. Singh chose to put his set up for auction. (Christie’s is not charging him a typical seller’s commission.)

He has put his prints into a trust. When they are sold, the money will go into the trust. Dr. Singh can withdraw 6 percent of the value of the trust every year. The balance grows tax-free and will go to charity.

But whatever the outcome of the sale Tuesday, in the view of Andreas Marks, author of “Hokusai: Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji,” and the curator for Japanese and Korean Art at the Minneapolis Institute of Art: “The achievement of putting it all together is extraordinary.”

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