Wright's Second Trip to Japan; Wright As an "Art Dealer"

Returning to Japan in the spring of 1913, it was clear this time that Wright’s intentions were to spend the full 2-month period solely in the earnest pursuit of Japanese woodblocks.

Toward this end, by all accounts this trip (aided by his new friend Shugio Hiromichi whom he’d apparently met earlier in Chicago) was widely successful. With connections made by Shugio, “word of Wright’s business in Japan” spread rapidly. As Wright later wrote of this trip, “Already I had established a considerable buying power and anything available in the ordinary channels came first to me. I picked up some fine things this way….(Soon) the twenty thousand dollars was gone…(so)…I would cable (to the Spauldings) for money from time to time….until I had spent about one hundred and twenty-five thousand Spaulding dollars for about a million dollars’ worth of prints.”

Wright’s significant move into the active buying and selling of Japanese prints further accelerated during the 1917 to 1922 period, when he spent a considerable amount of time in Japan with the design and construction of his world famous Tokyo “Imperial Hotel.” During this period, Wright “let it be known” to the Japanese public that he was actively seeking to purchase works of Japanese art. At the same time, many of America’s largest woodblock print collectors from the Midwest and East coast (such as the Spauldings, Van Vleck, Mansfield, Ficke, among others), also learned of Wright’s trips to Japan, and thusly commissioned him as their “agent” to seek out prints for their own collections.

During his significant time spent in Tokyo for the construction of the “Imperial Hotel”, Wright’s reputation as a “buyer of prints” grew to the point where he was actually able at times to simply “sit back” and let the Japanese print dealers come to him.

Wright first traveled to Japan in 1905, where he bought hundreds of prints. The following year, he helped organize the world's first retrospective exhibition of works by Hiroshige, held at the Art Institute of Chicago. For many years, he was a major presence in the Japanese art world, selling a great number of works to prominent collectors such as John Spaulding of Boston, and to prominent museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. He penned a book on Japanese art in 1912.

In 1920, however, rival art dealers began to spread rumors that Wright was selling retouched prints; this combined with Wright's tendency to live beyond his means, and other factors, led to great financial troubles for the architect. Though he provided his clients with genuine prints as replacements for those he was accused of retouching, this marked the end of the high point of his career as an art dealer. He was forced to sell off much of his art collection in 1927 to pay off outstanding debts; the Bank of Wisconsin claimed his Taliesin home the following year, and sold thousands of his prints, for only one dollar a piece, to collector Edward Burr Van Vleck.

Wright continued to collect, and deal in, prints until his death in 1959, frequently using prints as collateral for loans, frequently relying upon his art business to remain financially solvent.