One of the worlds most identifiable and reproduced images found its way into the auction room this week; Katsuskika Hokusais’s ‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa’, part of his ‘Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji’, sold for $2.76 million (roughly £2.26 million) at Christie’s Auction House in New York. 

The iconic image that features a huge wave about to swallow up a group of sailors and their boats, with Mount Fuji appearing in the background, is a piece of art that utilised the woodblock printing method and part of the Ukiyo-e movement in Japan that flourished during the mid to late Edo era (1603 -1867). 

The 37 by 25 cm artwork blew past its initial estimate of between $500,000 – $700,000 in Christie’s Japanese and Korean art auction, where numerous other Ukiyo-e prints and artefacts were up for sale. It was the second largest sale of the entire auction being beaten only by a Korean porcelain Moon jar which achieved $4.56 million. 

The successful bid on Tuesday means that this becomes the most expensive woodblock print ever to be sold, up from $1.59 million two years ago of a slightly different copy of the same piece. But will this record be beaten once again in the future?

The truth of the matter is, there were an estimated 8000 prints of this iconic artwork that were produced back in the early 19th century. 

Unlike other mediums of art, numerous woodblocks had to be carved in the shape of the image which were then used to apply the design and colour to the page. Instead of using these woodblocks — which were time consuming to make — only once and disposing of them, they would be used to create as many prints as possible until they began to wear out and negatively affect the image. This also explains another question that may arise.

As the woodblocks that are used to create the print wear out, some of the paint — and therefore details — is not fully applied to the paper. This can result in uneven edges, patchy colour continuity and even missing elements entirely. The process of printing by hand also invites a degree of variation.

Of the original 8000 prints possibly made back in the early 19th century, only a very few remain today.

Of those that do resurface, like the one auctioned earlier this week, there are very slight variations in clarity and finish. The one auctioned at Christies was marked as “well-preserved” but may also have been one of the earlier copies due to its colour and detail definition. It was also labelled as “beyond doubt among the twenty or so best impressions surviving today” See if you can spot some of the differences in the other various ‘Great Wave’ prints auctioned at Christies previously.