Yoshitomo Nara - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale Hong Kong Thursday, March 30, 2023 | Phillips
  • Exceptionally rare in composition and arresting in its visual power, Lookin’ for a Treasure is a singularly special painting by art world phenomenon, Yoshitomo Nara, whose ‘Nara girls’ have captivated audiences around the world. The protagonist embodies a unique combination of traits that are most highly sought after in the Japanese painter’s oeuvre and are characteristic of his work from this period, as she is depicted full-length with a large, chickpea shaped head and pudgy cheeks, fixatedly piercing jellybean eyes, and with small, cherry-red lips which here, form the expression of a mischievous, confident smirk that quietly confronts the viewer.  


    In stark contrast to the pastel blue, pristine background of seemingly infinite depth built through thin layers of repainting, the protagonist in Lookin’ for a Treasure wears a golden dress that is as vibrant as her sapphire-toned eyes. The subject’s canary dress, along with their bob haircut, brings to mind the iconic appearance of Madeline, the Parisian orphan schoolgirl who is the titular character of a media franchise that originated from children’s books by Ludwig Bemelmans in 1939. Madeline is renowned for her courageous and outgoing nature, which was brought to life through animated adaptations starting in 1993. Interestingly, Lookin’ for a Treasure, which similarly portrays a child whose mature confidence contradicts their youthful innocence, was created just two years after the animated series premiered.

    Significantly, Nara’s yellow-dressed muses are much more exclusive than their red and blue counterparts, as corroborated by the artist’s printed catalogue raisonné. As few as 20 paintings of yellow-dressed girls feature in paintings before 2000, compared to more than 50 for blue and 80 for red. And yet, 3 out of 5 of Nara’s highest results at auction are for works featuring yellow or yellow-red heroines, confirming that this is a particularly coveted trait within the artist’s oeuvre. 



    Ludwig Bemelmans, Cover of Madeline, 1939


    Perhaps this is due to the auspicious and sacred symbolism conjured by the colour golden-yellow, which is considered imperial in Chinese culture and reserved for the emperor, representing power, royalty, and prosperity. In Japan, yellow is considered the colour of nature and sunshine, whereas it symbolises joy and optimism in Western culture. Further, the meaning of the colour gold is multifaceted, often denoting generosity and compassion, as well as being synonymous with divinity and status in many religious settings including Renaissance art. 


    Indeed, these yellow-dressed Nara girls have also garnered notable institutional attention of museums around the world, with a number of canvases now held in the permanent collections of Aomori Museum of Art with Lampflowers (1993); The Tokushima Modern Art Museum with Untitled (Broken Treasure) (1995); the Rubell Museum, Miami, with Too Young to Die (2001); the Yuz Museum, Shanghai, with Jolie the Little Thinker (2011); and the Mori Art Museum, Tokyo, with Miss Moonlight (2020), to name a few. 



    The Crucial Years in Germany


    Lookin’ for a Treasure was painted in 1995 – a particularly important, breakthrough year for Nara as his first monograph was published; Blum & Poe became his dealer and honoured him with a solo show in Los Angeles; and Nara presented his first major gallery exhibition in Tokyo with ‘In the Deepest Puddle’ at SCAI the Bathhouse which asserted his signature painting style. He was living in Cologne at the time, in a studio acquired for him by Jörg Johnen one year prior, who was the co-owner of Galerie Johnen + Schöttle where Nara had exhibited his work before graduating from the prestigious Kunstakademie Düsseldorf in 1993 with an advanced degree in painting. 

    This studio became the ‘center of [Nara’s] world’i where he worked in the tranquil darkness of nighttime to a soundtrack of punk, rock and folk melodies blasting from his speakers. Within these walls, Nara captured his unique blend of introspective emotions, perfectly translating his sense of contemplative loneliness and longing onto canvas, during a prolific period in which he created some of his most prized works. 


    “A rock musician can share mental impulses with his audience in real time depending on the beat or the warped guitar sound he play. Likewise, Nara realizes something with his inner self as he uses his materials and simple images. His materials are his guitar, while images are his melody, his beat.”
    — Takashi Azumaya
    Lookin’ for a Treasure is among the first of Nara’s canvases that showcase the softer, more refined painterly style he transitioned into during the mid-to-late-1990s, which has come to represent his most recognisable aesthetic. Inspired by a range of artists from early Renaissance painter Giotto to Balthus, this shift moved away from the rougher, more aggressive brushstroke, thick black outlines and bold colours reminiscent of Neo-Expressionism that were present in his earlier pieces executed in Germany during his six-year apprenticeship under A.R. Penck from 1988, as Nara’s figures began to attain ‘the illusion of three-dimensionality, coming out of the pastel background buoyed up by luminous shadows’ii



    Alesso Baldovinetti, Portrait of a Lady in Yellow, 1465, Collection of The National Gallery, London 
    Image: © The National Gallery, London/Scala, Florence


    Whilst the painting is generously composed on a large format, the sheer craftsmanship of its artistry is striking when examined up close. What appears to be a pastel wash background is actually the result of multiple coats of semi-translucent acrylic that are painstakingly applied in successive layers, similar to the technique employed by renowned painter Peter Doig, who later became an influential instructor at the Kunstakademie Dusseldorf.


    This process produces an infinite amount of tonal subtleties that bring attention to the interplay of fine surface textures while emitting a mellow glow that radiates deep from the work's core. Whereas many Nara girls are painted against an off-white setting, in Lookin’ for a Treasure, our subject is situated amongst a vast expanse of sea or sky blue, which further evokes notions of exploration and adventure. However, with no indication of time or place, the result is both neutral and timeless, instead conveying an ambiguous sense of boundless possibility, especially when contrasted against the solid permanence of the figure who stands before us - their isolation representing the universally resonant sensation of feeling alone in our alienating world. As Nara has explained, ‘these blank backgrounds reflected liberation from the places that I had become familiar with. These works were born not from confronting the other, but from confronting myself.’iii



    Kitagawa Utamaro, The Oiran Hanaogi of Ogiya, circa 1795-1796
    Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 
    Image: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The Howard Mansfield Collection, Purchase, Rogers Fund, 1936

    Meticulously composed, Lookin’ for a Treasure exudes an air of simplicity through its austere yet organic line which recalls the free-handed drawings found in classic Japanese cartoons from the 1950s, the works of renowned ukiyo-e woodblock artist Kitagawa Utamaro, or the bold colours often seen in vintage picture books or movies, such as the Wizard of Oz’s richly saturated yellow brick road. Moreover, this distinct aesthetic shares ‘the same inherent subversiveness against 'classical style' like the faux-naïve paintings of Magic Realism, the German figurative paintings in the 1920s, and the early Lucien Freud (1922-2011).’iv   




    The Golden Girls


    Having not appeared on the market for more than a decade, the present work forms part of a very small series of only 4 canvases painted in 1995 of Nara’s doll-like protagonist wearing an umbrella-shaped, golden dress, set against a pale blue background. The other work referencing ‘treasure’ in its title has been acquired by the Tokushima Modern Art Museum for its permanent collection.

    When the ‘golden girls’ are examined collectively, it can be hypothesised that Nara was interested in the fundamental elements that define our world at the time of their execution - earth, air, water and spirit. Untitled (Broken Treasure) depicts a figure clutching a plant, which could represent the earth, while I'm Swaying in the Air references our atmosphere. Walking with Little Steps portrays an androgynous, small child carrying a fishing rod, suggesting water. Finally, according to this perspective, Lookin’ for a Treasure would thus refer to mysticism, magic, and the otherworldly, due to its protagonist engaging with the act of dowsing. 

  • Looking for Treasure

    “Some Sorcerers do boast they have a Rod,
    Gather'd with Vowes and Sacrifice,
    And (borne about) will strangely nod
    To hidden Treasure where it lies;
    Mankind is (sure) that Rod divine,
    For to the Wealthiest (ever) they incline.”
    — Virgula Divina, Written by Samuel Sheppard, from Epigrams theological, philosophical, and romantick (1651)

    The title of the present work alludes to the pair of L-shaped dowsing prongs the child points forward in Lookin’ for a Treasure, which captures her adventurous spirit as she searches intently. Dowsing has a long and diverse history in Germany as a type of divination, with many distinct practitioners and schools of thought arising over the years, and it is probable Nara first became acquainted with it during his time in Europe. The theory behind the practice suggests that divining tools such as a forked stick or prongs react to subtle vibrations or energy fields emanating from water, minerals, or other hidden treasures, guiding the dowser to their hidden locations. In many cultures, dowsing is considered a supernatural practice, with practitioners claiming to possess mystical abilities.

    For Nara—an artist who at the time was on the brink of international success—the ideas Lookin’ for a Treasure conveys of discovery and exploration serve as a powerful metaphor for the artist’s own journey. This can be traced from his largely isolated childhood in postwar Hirosaki (a small castle town over 400 miles from Tokyo), where Nara had two working parents and was thus largely left up to his own devices, to his paths traversed at Musashino Art University in Tokyo, Aichi Prefectural University of Fine Arts and Music near Nagoya, and later in Germany. Additionally, Nara’s deep love for music, his fascination with different subcultures, and his community involvement have all played important roles in shaping his identity. In this light, the image of the Nara girl in Lookin’ for a Treasure can be viewed as a reflection of Nara himself, illuminating his own pursuit for development in both his art, and sense of self, during these formative years. 



    Collector’s Digest


    • Lookin’ for a Treasure is a masterpiece that encapsulates the very best of Nara’s practice at a time where institutional and critical acknowledgement of the artist is at an all-time high and his market is stronger than ever, as evidenced by Nara’s top 10 auction prices being set in the past 4 years. This includes Missing in Action (2000), the current second-highest result which was set by Phillips Hong Kong in 2021, as well as Hothouse Doll (1995) which achieved a second-highest record at the time, when Phillips Hong Kong sold it in 2020.
    • Having been the subject of extensive exhibitions at key galleries and institutions around the world, Nara has most recently been honoured with important solo shows at museums that include the Art Gallery of Western Australia in Perth, which is currently ongoing until 25 June 2023; Yuz Museum in Shanghai in 2022-2023; Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2021-2022; Dallas Contemporary in 2021; Kuandu Museum of Arts in Taipei in 2021; and the Rubell Family Collection in Miami in 2020-2021, to highlight a few. 
    • Further, Nara’s work has been on the covers of records by bands such as Shonen Knife, REM, The Star Club, The Birdy Num Nums and many more, as well as the covers of books by writers such as Banana Yoshimoto, Hijo Tanaka, and Riichi Nakaba. In December 2022, Nara released his second collaboration with fashion designer Stella McCartney.
    • Work by Nara is held in the most important institutions around the globe, including the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo; the British Museum, London; Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art, Australia, among others.


    iYoshtiomo Nara, quoted in Bijutsu Shuppan-Sha, ed., Yoshimoto Nara: The Complete BT Archives 1991-2013, Tokyo, 2013, p. 44

    iiMidori Matsui, ‘A Gaze from Outside: Merits of the Minor in Yoshitomo Nara’s Painting’, in exh. cat., Yokohama Museum of Art, Nara Yoshitomo: I Don’t Mind, If You Forget Me, 2001, p. 168
    iiiYoshitomo Nara, The Little Start Dweller, Taipei, 2004, p. 60
    ivMidori Matsui, New Japanese Painting in 1990s, Tokyo, 1999, p. 12

    • Provenance

      Galerie d'Eendt, Amsterdam
      Private Collection (acquired from the above in 1995)
      Private Collection (acquired from the above in 2008)
      Christie's, Hong Kong, 26 November 2011, lot 1053
      Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

    • Literature

      Noriko Miyamura and Shinko Suzuki, eds., Yoshitomo Nara: The Complete Works Volume 1: Paintings, Sculptures, Editions, Photographs 1984-2010, Tokyo, 2011, no. P-1995-010, p. 382 (illustrated, p. 114)



Lookin' for a Treasure

signed, titled and dated 'Nara [in Japanese] 95 "Lookin' for a Treasure"' on the reverse
acrylic on canvas
120 x 110 cm. (47 1/4 x 43 1/4 in.)
Painted in 1995.

Full Cataloguing

Estimate On Request

Sold for HK$83,850,000

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Charlotte Raybaud
Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+852 2318 2026

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

Hong Kong Auction 30 March 2023