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The art world’s new rock star

With a string of sensational purchases at auction under his belt and a museum in the pipeline, Yusaku Maezawa is the talk of the art world. Danielle Demetriou went to Tokyo to meet him and take a tour of his stunning collection

‘Japanese people think I’m a weirdo,’ smiles Yusaku Maezawa, his eyes sparkling. ‘They say, who is this Maezawa person? But, honestly, I don’t think anything of it.’ The Japanese billionaire — cocooned in a scarlet Jean Royère Polar Bear armchair, his bare feet tucked beneath him and a plastic bottle of green tea in his hand — can clearly afford not to pay much attention to what people think.

A quick glance around the room confirms what is more important to him: two Alexander Calder mobiles, one red, one black, hang elegantly above his head; a Roy Lichtenstein painting spans a nearby wall; while a roughly hewn Willem de Kooning sculpture is frozen in motion on a dining table surrounded by a dozen Jean Prouvé chairs.

Yet the 41-year-old entrepreneur, who made his fortune with a hugely successful online fashion venture, is perhaps more popular than he gives himself credit for. (For the record, he is also far more friendly than weird in person.) The reason for this is simple: he has recently been hailed as a new-generation rock star of the art world after electrifying the market with a string of record-breaking purchases.

Richard Prince, Runaway Nurse, 2005–06 and Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Net #4, 1959. Courtesy Yayoi Kusama Inc., Ota Fine Arts, TokyoSingapore, David Zwirner, New YorkLondon and Victoria Miro, London, © Yayoi Kusama. © Richard Prince.

Richard Prince, Runaway Nurse, 2005–06 and Yayoi Kusama, Infinity Net #4, 1959. Courtesy Yayoi Kusama Inc., Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo/Singapore, David Zwirner, New York/London and Victoria Miro, London, © Yayoi Kusama. © Richard Prince.

Eyebrows were first raised in May 2016 following a two-day, $98-million spree that filled his shopping basket with seven works by artists including Richard Prince, Jeff Koons and Bruce Nauman. Not forgetting Basquiat’s Untitled (1982), whose visceral depiction of the artist as a devil reportedly gave Maezawa ‘shivers’ when he first laid eyes on it and cost a record $57.3 million at Christie’s. 

Maezawa continued his winning art streak this May, when he broke records again by paying $110.5 million for a second Basquiat — Untitled, also from 1982, a powerful neo-expressionist depiction of a skull against an electric-hued backdrop — the largest sum ever paid for a US artist at auction.

‘I feel some responsibility now,’ he admits. ‘I was just being selfish before — I used to buy art simply for my own pleasure. But now I have an art foundation and I know that each purchase I make has an impact. And I will also be opening a museum in the future. Basically, I want more people to like art — and I want more people to make art.’

‘I loved loud music. Hardcore rock, and heavy metal. Actually, Metallica’s drummer also collects Basquiat’

Maezawa is pottering barefoot around the kitchen when I arrive at his split-level apartment, a haven of rich woods, modern concrete and green plants in an exclusive complex on a quiet residential lane in Tokyo. He is clearly used to visitors taking their time to reach him, waylaid by the cornucopia of world-famous works that come into view the moment the door swings open (there can be few more distracting places to swap shoes for slippers than Maezawa’s genkan  entrance).

Straight ahead are back-to-back gems — among them a white Infinity Net  by Yayoi Kusama, ‘Date Paintings’ by Japanese artist On Kawara, and Richard Prince’s Runaway Nurse  — lining the staircase that leads downstairs. Meanwhile, just to the right, the rainbow-hued angles of Picasso’s Buste de Femme (Dora Maar)  and the spindly silhouette of a Giacometti can be spied on the landing, next to a nonchalantly positioned half-packed suitcase lying open on the floor. This is to be taken on his private jet when Maezawa flies to St Tropez the following morning, where, he later confides, he is attending a star-studded bash thrown by his pal Leonardo DiCaprio.

Maezawa on a Cafétéria no. 300 Demountable chair by Jean Prouvé, 1948 © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2017 

Maezawa on a Cafétéria no. 300 Demountable chair by Jean Prouvé, 1948 © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2017 

When I finally arrive downstairs in the kitchen, Maezawa looks more pop star than conventional Japanese CEO, greeting me in a friendly, informal manner, dressed in a casual T-shirt, a small ring in each ear. The art show continues as I follow him into the open-plan living space, a crushed chrome fender by John Chamberlain to the left, a life-sized sheep by François-Xavier Lalanne just behind him. All the nearby surfaces are piled high with art books and exhibition catalogues.

Maezawa explains his circuitous route to contemporary art. The son of a salaryman accountant and a housewife, Maezawa was raised in Chiba, just outside Tokyo (he smiles and shakes his head emphatically when asked if he was raised in a creative family), where his childhood was dominated by music, and he began playing drums and guitar in a band.

Shunning higher education for a taste of the American dream, he moved to Santa Monica to play music for six months — an experience that inspired his first business venture back in Japan, selling mail-order music CDs from his kitchen table.

‘I buy things on impulse — I have done since I was young. I have also always bought things up to my financial limit’

It was a business that segued smoothly into his e-commerce fashion venture Zozotown, which launched in 2004 and reportedly made him a billionaire by the age of 35 (he is currently Japan’s 14th richest person according to Forbes, which estimates his net worth — and this is after his Basquiat sprees — at $4.3 billion).

His passion for music not only led to business success and an eye-watering fortune, but also created a burgeoning love affair with all things art. ‘Agnostic Front. Biohazard. Slayer...’ The list of 1980s US bands trips easily of his tongue. ‘I loved music. Very loud music, hardcore rock, and heavy metal,’ he says. ‘Actually, Metallica’s drummer also collects Basquiat.’

But the starting point of his actual collection can be traced to a precise moment, 10 years ago, when he found himself in a private gallery face-to-face with an artwork he knew instantly he had to have. ‘It was an oil painting by Lichtenstein,’ he says. ‘It was a very big investment for me back then, about two million dollars. It was the first time I had bought a painting. I just loved the greens — Lichtenstein is very good at creating beautiful greens. I followed my intuition and I bought it.’

The Japanese word chokkan — meaning intuition or hunch — crops up frequently during our conversation, a reflection of how Maezawa unwaveringly follows his gut instincts in every aspect of his life, be it a multi-million-dollar business deal or a sky-high bid at an auction. He glances at the objects around the room: ‘I suppose everything here is powerful. I like distinctive shapes and colours. But it’s all chokkan, to be honest. I either like something or I don’t.’

In the Christie’s saleroom: Maezawa wins the auction for Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Untitled (1982) in New York in May 2016

Of his most recent purchase, he enthuses: ‘Basquiat’s work is just wonderful. When I saw it in the catalogue, I knew it was going to be good — and when I went to see it, it had a great impact on me. I just had to buy it. The moment I saw it, I made the decision. But yes, it was expensive.’

With a smile, he continues: ‘I buy things on impulse — I have done since I was young. I have also always bought things up to my financial limit. And when I ran out of money, I would make more money — then I would buy again. So basically, I never have enough money! That’s how I keep up my motivation. If you have too much money and can always buy everything, where is the fun in that?’

He is a strong believer that wealth follows a commitment to one’s passions: ‘I find that if I pursue my interest, then money follows. I believe that the pursuit of one’s personal interests has to come before pursuing money.’

As to whether he considers himself more businessman or art collector, he says: ‘My business is also like my hobby. I’ve never thought of myself as an art collector as such. I have many hobbies and interests. I love cars — I have many supercars. Also, I’m very interested in Japanese teacups.’ At which point he leaps from his seat and rushes out of the room before returning and eagerly thrusting something into my hands. The object in question is an exquisite, 400-year-old Japanese teacup, whose wabi-sabi  beauty — all sloping sides, earthy square corners and etched motifs — he clearly relishes sharing.

‘I’m like a child surrounded by toys; it's like living in a treasure box. I love touching these artworks and design pieces’ 

‘I love teacups from this era. I’m drawn to the fact that it’s unique, the only one. Its design also looks quite contemporary. All these modern design pieces around me have a contemporary patina — but I love that antiques are ageing and come from the earth. I’m like a child surrounded by toys; it’s like living in a treasure box. I love touching these artworks and design pieces. I often use this teacup. I prepare matcha green tea, perform a tea ceremony and drink from it.’

Unmarried Maezawa, who is steadfastly discreet about his personal life, admits that his three young children derive amusement from his home. ‘Art is really good for kids,’ he smiles. ‘Although they don’t really understand yet what it is. They point at that plant over there and say, is that art?

Maezawa, of course, has no such hesitation. The art world is now most likely watching his every move — particularly as he will have a museum to fill, and also a new house, created with Japanese architect Hiroshi Nakamura, soon to be completed after eight years of planning.

He is, understandably, unwilling to name specific artists or artworks he has his eye on, but describes himself as a ‘challenger’ and an ‘adventurer’, admitting he is ‘getting used to the tensions of auction’.

One thing is certain: whatever he buys next, Maezawa will be following his chokkan — and it has not failed him yet.