The intriguing tale of Hikonobu Ise, a 94-year-old art collector and owner of Ise Foods, known as the “Egg King” internationally, is set to unfold at Sotheby’s New York on November 13th. A portion of his esteemed art collection, including Monet’s “Poplars on the Epte,” valued between 4.47 to 5.96 billion yen, will be auctioned off.
The “Modern Evening Auction,” starting at 7 PM, will feature masterpieces of Impressionism, Surrealism, and Cubism. From the Ise Collection, Marc Chagall’s “Over the Town” (estimated at 1.78 to 2.68 billion yen), Paul Cézanne’s “Blue Plate” (450 to 750 million yen), and Monet’s aforementioned “Poplars on the Epte” will be up for bidding. Additionally, 12 pieces from the Ise Collection will be offered at the more accessible “Day Auction,” signaling the collection’s long-awaited monetization.
Ise Foods, Japan’s largest egg producer with annual sales of 50 billion yen, supplying “Mori no Tamago” (Forest Eggs) nationwide, faced financial struggles. High-interest debt from international expansion, coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on egg prices and soaring feed costs, led to a cash crunch. The company’s total debt amounted to approximately 45.3 billion yen.
The company rehabilitation application, filed last March by major creditor Aozora Bank and Ise’s son and former president of Ise Foods, Junichiro Ise, was highly unusual, as it came from creditors, shareholders, and notably the family. The unclear ownership status of the Ise Collection, consisting of Western paintings centered on Impressionism, Chinese ceramics, and Japanese paintings including works by Ogata Korin, underscored the distrust. Valued at 100 billion yen, the collection’s acquisition was often financed through loans from group companies to Ise, blurring the lines between personal and company ownership.
The collection’s worth was highlighted when Andy Warhol’s “Silver Liz,” owned by Ise, sold for about 2.3 billion yen at an auction held by Shinwa Wise Holdings at Haneda Airport, shortly after the application. However, the collection remained in limbo, jointly managed by the trustee and Ise, due to disputes over whether it belonged to the corporation or Ise personally.
Despite these challenges, the Ise Foods Group’s rehabilitation plan progressed smoothly. In May, Tokyo District Court approved the rehabilitation plans for Ise Foods, Ise Farm, and Fuji Tamago. With this, SMBC Capital Partners, part of Sumitomo Mitsui Financial Group, fulfilled its sponsorship contract by subscribing to the entire amount of new shares issued by Ise Foods based on the rehabilitation plan.
The rebranded “Egg & Farmers,” set to launch in February next year, signifies the complete removal of Ise’s influence from the top egg company. The fate of the Ise Collection, however, remained uncertain until the Sotheby’s New York auction was confirmed.
Initially, there were attempts to sell the collection through “sales events” rather than auctions, but disagreements between the trustee and Ise’s sides led to a stalemate. Finally, a consignment agreement for the 15 pieces to Sotheby’s New York was signed on September 14th in front of a Tokyo District Court judge. The three pieces in the Evening Auction alone are expected to fetch between 6.91 to 9.39 billion yen.
Concerns in the art world persist about the validity of the contract, considering the complex joint management and the influence of the trustee. There are doubts about whether Ise, deeply attached to his collection, was fully informed and understood the lengthy English contract. Despite his reluctance, Ise agreed to the sale, understanding the risk of bankruptcy if he did not.
This story of the Ise Collection, from its rise alongside an egg empire to its controversial journey to the auction block, reflects the complex interplay of art, business, and family legacy in modern Japan.