The man behind the Miho

Georgina Adam profiles Noriyoshi Horiuchi

Few dealers can have experienced what Noriyoshi Horiuchi has lived in the last eight years. An encounter with the leader of a Japanese sect suddenly catapulted him from obscurity to being the most powerful man in the antiquities market, responsible for building Japan’s first major collection for the new Miho Museum - and with an apparently limitless budget to do so.


It was the chance of a lifetime for Horiuchi and one that he describes as both enormously exhilarating and extremely stressful. He was responsible for the choice and purchase of some 300 top objects, bought at top speed, in a field that is notoriously riddled with fakes and dodgy provenances. For six years, from 1991 to 1996, he was totally devoted to building up the collection, destined for the Miho Museum near Kyoto, which opened in November 1997.

As the purchases flowed in he had acrimonious battles with the famous architect I.M.Pei, who constantly had to redesign the museum to accommodate them. Horiuchi claims that he even courted bankruptcy during his high-speed spending spree, when he had to seize objects as they came on the market, before getting approval for his choices. And because of his sudden leap to free-spending prominence, he says he faced jealousy, antagonism and accusations of fakery from infuriated rivals in the trade. One senses that this remains a very sore point, even after all the accolades that greeted the opening of the museum.

 

"I’m not a rich man"

I meet Horiuchi in his small but elegant gallery in Tokyo’s Kyobashi district. To a background of opera music, he expands at length about his art-dealing career, the crucial meeting with the founders of the Miho Museum and the quality of the collection he was so instrumental in forming.

Now in his 50s, Horiuchi presents a bluff, intense exterior with sudden and unexpected bursts of humour. Obtaining a meeting with him is difficult, as he flits between London, New York and Tokyo in a "regular pattern" as he says, but when you do pin him down he is generous with his time. Indeed he seems generous in other ways, and pursues a number of interests including raising money for young singers, funding excavation projects and sponsoring his great love, opera productions. As a result he claims that working with the Miho has not made him rich, and this despite the enormous budget (estimated at over US$ 200 million) he handled while putting together the collection.

 

"Destiny"

"Destiny bought us together," he says of the meeting with the mother-and-daughter team Mihoko and Hiroko Koyama, founders of the Shumeikei Religious Sect. This society is one of Japan’s new religions, venerating Truth, Virtue and Beauty (Mihoko Koyama was a follower of Mokichi Okada, whose MOA Museum in Atami is justly renowned. She formed her own religion after his death in 1955).

Koyama san, who comes from a rich Osaka textile family, already had a tea ceremony collection when she bought some pieces from Horiuchi. However she wanted to build a grand museum, and it was decided her collection needed a more international dimension for the project.

The rest of the story is, as they say, history - how on a trip to London Horiuchi visited Guiseppe Eskenazi, the Chinese art gallery where prices start in the tens of thousands of pounds. He stumbled upon a collection of inlaid Chinese bronzes being prepared for an exhibition and reserved two-thirds of the show before it even opened. Then Koyama san decided to buy only three pieces. "I was terrified, I had red-dotted almost the whole show, I was faced with paying for them myself!" he says. To his relief she recanted and bought all but one of the pieces.

From then on he became a leading force in the antiquities market, buying widely from Greek glass to Chinese bronzes. His purchasing power did much to bolster the market during the 1990s recession. "Of course it pushed prices up but we had to buy things as they came available, to take that risk," he says. Very little was bought at auction, the most notable exception being the 7.7 million British pounds Assyrian stone relief discovered in the tuckshop of the British public school.

 

The question of authenticity

We turn rapidly to the vexed question of authenticity, about which Horiuchi is extremely sensitive - indeed both my interviews with him were followed up with telephone calls repeating points he had made on this subject.

"Koyama san is a goddess, and so she cannot make a mistake," he explains to my astonishment. The majority of the pieces he acquired were bought from top dealers, at top prices; even so he has fielded many allegations of forgeries. "If I had accepted all the rumours of fakes, 60/70 percent of the collection would have disappeared," he claims. "Jealousy was always a problem. And then I am Japanese."

The implication is that the Japanese are seen as gullible buyers who, to save face, will never return a wrong object. "If there were any forgeries, I sent them back," he says, listing a whole series of eminent experts who examined the pieces. His sensitivity on this point probably stems from his own lack of formal art history training. He read law and then left Japan in the 1970s to study "in museums" and as a free listener in Basle. For a while he ran a small gallery in New Bond Street, dealing in Egyptian and Western antiquities, before returning to Tokyo and opening another gallery, where the fateful meeting with the Koyamas occurred.

Today, Horiuchi finds himself in a new position. Since the museum opened, buying has slowed dramatically, but during his total involvement with Miho he had no time to look after other clients. His gallery - which he says is his wife’s - is now advertising once again.

Of his involvement with Miho he says "it was a lot of excitement and a lot of stress, and still is, because the collection has such a high reputation and I was responsible for this. I am like a craftsman - I have worked on this temple, and perhaps I will work on another one day."

 


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