A group of 11 early works by Yayoi Kusama from the late 1950s and early ’60s that have been in private hands for six decades sold on Wednesday for a collective $15.2 million—almost double the pre-sale expectation of $8.8 million—at Bonhams during a postwar and contemporary art sale in New York.
The trove consists of three paintings and eight works on paper that Kusama gifted to the late Japanese cardiovascular surgeon Teruo Hirose in exchange for medical care. Bidders from China, the Middle East, Europe, and the United States competed to buy the works, according to a Bonhams spokesperson.
Kusama and Hirose, who died in 2019 at the age of 93, were longtime friends who both emigrated to the U.S. from Japan in the 1950s. When Kusama moved to New York, she brought some 2,000 works on paper—seven of which sold in Wednesday’s sale.
“In addition to it being the largest and most complete collection, it is also the most significant collection by the artist to come to auction,” said Ralph Taylor, Bonhams global head of postwar and contemporary sales. Taylor added that the early pieces are marked by “layers of history, subtext, and meaning,” bearing references to Georgia O’Keeffe, Kusama’s parents’ occupations as seed traders, and Kusama’s sexuality. “These are stories that were not widely told until recently.”
The top lot of the collection was a 1965 painting, Untitled, that depicts a variegated pattern of colors emanating from a central point, in a composition foreshadowing the look of Kusama’s later mirror boxes. It sold for $4.6 million with the buyer’s premium, against an estimate of $2.5 million. Other highlights were Mississippi River (1960) and Hudson River (1960), featuring early examples of Kusama’s signature “Infinity Net” motif. Those two works sold for a combined $7.6 million, against an estimate of $6 million.
The eight works on paper, mostly completed when Kusama was in her 20s, also far outpaced their individual expectations. Each sold for prices between $300,000–$500,000, against low estimates of $60,000–$80,000.
Early-period Kusama works from the ’50s and ’60s are the rarest on the market and have fetched the artist’s highest public prices. Eight of her top 10 auction records were achieved by paintings she created in 1959 or 1960. Despite Kusama’s widespread recognition and global appeal in the museum sector, the artist’s market still lags behind that of her American male postwar contemporaries. Her current record price stands at $7.9 million, for a white “Infinity Net” painting from 1959 at Sotheby’s in April 2019.