Treasures: Carving out their niche
Ireland’s fine arts, antiques and collectables column
In September, 2013 a pocket-sized Japanese rat sold at Bonhams of New York for the US equivalent of €43,530. A sumo wrestler carved in wood, and measuring just 11cm tall, made €36,656.
A standing horse, also in wood, made €32,074 and a small ivory dragon went for €34,365. The little carvings were part of an important collection of netsuke (pronounced nets-keh), an engaging kind of Japanese traditional dress toggle for men - used to fasten a drawstring on the equivalent of a Japanese manbag.
In 2013, interest in netsuke collecting was probably at an all time high. Edmund de Waal's multi-prize winning book, The Hare With Amber Eyes (2010), had just done the rounds of every book club in the western world.
It traces the true story of a family collection of Japanese netsuke from fin de siècle Paris, through occupied Vienna, and back to Tokyo.
It's a glamorous tale of banking empires, lost fortunes and loyal servants with 264 tiny carved objects at the centre. De Waal's writing captures the charm of the little carvings: "The beggar who has fallen asleep over his begging bowl so that all you can see is the top of his bald head. There is also a dried fish, all scales and shrunken eyes, with a small rat scuttling over it proprietorially; its eyes are inlaid jet. And there is the mad old man with his bony back and bulging eyes gnawing on a fish with an octopus in his other hand."
Netsuke are miniature sculptures, hand carved in Japan since the 17th century. Mostly made in ivory and wood, they come in the shape of realistic animals - a curled snake, a wolf eating a haunch of venison - but also mythic beasts or demons.
Despite their quirkiness, they had a practical purpose. Traditional Japanese clothing did not have pockets, so men would suspend their personal belongings - pens, purses and tobacco pouches - in a pouch that hung from a silk cord.
The netsuke was attached to the other end of the cord and prevented it from slipping through the wearer's sash. All netsuke have a hole to let the cord through and are carved without sticking-out bits that could break off easily.
Probably because of their size, netsuke have travelled all over the world. In May of last year an ivory netsuke carved in the shape of a grinning Noh mask sold here in Ireland at Adams for €140. The previous November a trio of hardwood netsuke - a stylised monkey head with a playful crab, a huddle of three bats and a perching owl had sold for €100.
A carved ivory group of a pair of travellers annoyed by monkeys reached €170 and a father and son, sharing the contents of a flask, went for €190. These date from the Meji period (1868-1912). The 19th century is considered the hey-day of netsuke carving. After this, the making declined as Japanese people no longer wore traditional dress. The tradition is still practised as an art form, although many collectors are only interested in historic carvings that were made to be used.
In recent years, the engaging little sculptures have become massively popular among collectors with pockets of all sizes. "I used to have to explain what I do," says Max Rutherston, a London-based netsuke dealer (rutherston.com). "Now everyone seems to know about netsuke." His clients vary from the super-rich, who might pay up to €80,000 for a piece, to people who buy humbler netsuke from around €150. Mostly, he deals with collectors who are prepared to pay between €2,700 and €6,700 to feed their netsuke habit.
Des Gallagher (firstname.lastname@example.org), an antique dealer from Down, admits collecting netsuke is addictive. "We've got regular netsuke customers in Cork, Limerick and Dublin, so they tend to sell out very quickly. People start by buying 20th century netsuke in wood for about €40 and then they progress to older ivory carvings, which normally sell for between €200 and €600."
Many of the pieces that pass through Gallagher's hands were brought into the country by soldiers returning from Japan after the Second World War. "They brought them home as souvenirs without knowing what they were worth. People come to me and say their father or grandfather has one in a cabinet and there are probably many more in homes around the country."
The value of netsuke varies hugely, depending on their age and the quality of the carving, and there are also many clever fakes which are made from cast resin that looks like ivory. Genuine pieces too come with a warning. Since it is illegal to buy or sell ivory carved since 1947, it's important to be able to demonstrate the age of the item. Many netsuke are signed and an expert will often use the artist's signature to date a piece.
Part of the charm of netsuke is that the carvings often have symbolic meanings or refer to stories from Japanese tradition. A monkey sitting on a catfish, for example, refers to the legend that the whole world is resting on a catfish (when the fish moves, it causes earthquakes).
Other pieces refer to local traditions - an artist from a Japanese fishing village, for example, might specialise in carvings of fish. If you're interested in unravelling the stories, there's an interesting and very visual account in Netsuke: 100 Miniature Masterpieces from Japan (2014) by Noriko Tsuchiya, for €18.13 from britishmuseumshoponline.org. There's also a nice collection in our very own Chester Beatty Library (cbl.ie).