Here is a spread of early 20th century silver piastre trade coins from the colony of French Indo-China. Prices for these silver trade dollars, and others like them, have steadily risen over the past 10 years - particularly for problem free specimens in good condition.
In 1865 U.S. journalist Horace Greeley popularized the rallying cry "Go west, young man". The phrase was originally meant to encourage the enterprising and ambitious to strike out for fortune in the rugged expanses of the Western United States. And yet, if you travel far enough west, you inevitably find yourself in the exotic and mysterious Far East.
In the 19th century, China, Japan, Korea and Southeast Asia were not only sources of exotic philosophies and bizarre plants and animals, but also luxury goods of all descriptions. So it shouldn't come as a surprise that the unfamiliar, yet beguiling, cultures of the Far East fascinated the West. Antique silver trade dollars - large coins minted to promote commerce in the region - perfectly exemplified this Western obsession with all things East Asian.
During the mid 19th century European trade with the Far East grew dramatically. Europe imported massive quantities of Chinese silk, porcelain and tea, along with many other East Asian luxury goods. However, the merchants of the Far East - and China in particular - would only accept silver bullion in exchange for their wares.
As the 19th century progressed and the European powers established colonial territories in East Asia, the need for standardized silver trade coins to facilitate commerce became acute. As a result, the greatest empires and nations of the age - France, Great Britain, Japan and the U.S. - all minted impressively heavy silver trade dollars for exclusive use in the distant Far East trade.
Although I use the phrase "silver trade dollars" as a catchall term in this guide, calling these coins silver trade crowns would be more technically accurate. A "crown" in coin collecting traditionally referred to an old British 5 shilling silver coin. However, the term has also been adopted by the collecting community to refer to any silver coin that is similarly large in size.
Foreign silver crowns are avidly sought by coin collectors due to their imposing dimensions and captivating designs. Silver trade dollars of the Far East are no exception to this rule. With diameters generally varying between 38 and 39 millimeters (1.5 to 1.54 inches), they are similar in size to the venerable U.S. silver dollar.
In addition, these East Asian trade coins were struck from high purity, 900 fine (90%) silver. They were among the largest, most splendid coins ever intended for general circulation. Nothing impresses a potential trade partner like a massive hunk of almost pure silver.
Tragically, these historic silver trade dollars were usually treated as common bullion. Although originally minted by the tens of millions, over the decades vast quantities have been damaged, excessively worn or melted down. Consequently, these artistically crafted treasures of a bygone era are not nearly as plentiful as official mintage figures would indicate, particularly for examples in better condition.
One of the most beautiful and iconic of these silver trade dollars is the French Indo-China piastre. Over a period of about 30 years in the late 19 century, France accumulated several territories that it eventually consolidated into French Indo-China. The present-day countries of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were all part of this colony. At the time, the French Empire was second only to the British Empire in terms of prestige.
In order to facilitate trade in French Indo-China, France introduced a new currency unit called the piastre de commerce. The piastre was minted to a standard of 24.49 grams (0.7875 troy ounces) of pure silver. The series ran from 1885 to 1928 and featured the personification of Liberty seated on the front.
The figure of seated Liberty on the coin looks uncannily like the Statue of Liberty in New York City's harbor. This isn't just a coincidence. France gave the famous landmark to the United States in 1886 as a gift for its (belated) 100th anniversary. The reverse has a simple, yet elegant, wreath surrounded by a legend with the coin's weight and fineness.
In 1895 the weight of the French Indo-China piastre was slightly reduced to 24.30 grams (0.7812 troy ounces) of fine silver. However, the purity and design of the coin was left unaltered. The French Indo-China piastre was minted primarily in Paris, but coins dated 1921 and 1922 were struck in Birmingham, Osaka or Hanoi.
French Indo-China Silver Piastre Coins For Sale
Another silver trade dollar that is extremely popular with collectors today is the British trade dollar. In the early 1890s, the British began looking for a new currency to promote commerce with China, as well as Britain's expansive East Asian possessions. As a result, the British trade dollar was minted from 1895 to 1935. This coveted coin saw heavy circulation in Burma, British Malaya, British Borneo, Singapore and Hong Kong.
This attractive silver trade dollar shows Britannia - the personification of the mighty British Empire - standing proudly with her trident and shield on the obverse while the reverse displays the denomination in both the Chinese and Malay languages. The British trade dollar contained 24.26 grams (0.7800 troy ounces) of fine silver and was minted in both Bombay (present day Mumbai) and Calcutta (present day Kolkata).
British Silver Trade Dollars For Sale
The Japanese also felt the need to maintain their commercial interests by striking a silver trade dollar. In 1897 Japan pulled over 20 million of its silver one yen coins from circulation and countermarked them with the Japanese word "gin" or silver. These demonetized coins were then exported as bullion pieces to the Imperial Japanese possessions of Taiwan, Korea and Manchuria. The "gin" countermark denoting these as special trade pieces was stamped on the reverse of the coins, to either the left of the denomination (indicating the Osaka mint) or the right (indicating the Tokyo mint).
The Japanese silver one yen coin contained 24.26 grams (0.7800 troy ounces) of fine silver and was struck from 1874 to 1897. It featured an Asian-style dragon on the obverse and the stately Japanese imperial crest, along with a wreath and the denomination on the reverse. These remarkable Japanese silver trade dollars were a far cry from the feudal-style, "samurai money" the Tokugawa shogunate had struck just a few decades before.
Japanese Countermarked Silver One Yen Coins For Sale
Not to be outdone by its trade rivals, the United States also minted an East Asian silver trade dollar that is extremely popular with collectors today. But this silver trade coin had a story behind it.
In the early 1870s the United States had two problems. First, it needed to find a way to off-load massive quantities of silver that had been discovered in Nevada's famous Comstock Lode. Second, the U.S. was worried about the competitiveness of its existing silver dollar in the Far East trade versus the preeminent coin of Chinese commerce at the time, the silver Mexican 8 reales. Foreign silver coins other than the Mexican 8 reales - like the U.S. dollar - were often significantly discounted in transactions.
As a way to address both problems at once, the U.S. authorized the striking of a special, slightly heavier version of the silver dollar. This resulted in the U.S. trade dollar, a coin struck from 1873 to 1885 that was intended to circulate solely in China and the Far East. The U.S. trade dollar showed Liberty seated on the front and an eagle with wings spread on the back of the coin. The coin was struck in Philadelphia, San Francisco and Carson City (in Nevada) to a standard of 24.49 grams (0.7874 troy ounces) of pure silver.
U.S. Silver Trade Dollars For Sale
An ambitious connoisseur could assemble a very impressive traditional collection of these large, enticing silver coins by date and mint. Alternatively, one could assemble a good "short set" by acquiring a single example of each type of trade crown - a French Indo-China piastre de commerce, a British trade dollar, a "gin" countermarked Japanese yen and a U.S. trade dollar.
Another fine set would be a French Indo-China piastre from every decade of its production run - one from the 1880s, 1890s, 1900s, 1910s and finally the 1920s. This type of abbreviated set would work well with the British trade dollar as well.
Yet another variant would be collecting every different date of a U.S. trade dollar struck at a particular mint. A San Francisco U.S. trade dollar set would consist of six common-date coins and be eminently achievable. On the other hand, a Carson City set - although the same number of coins - would be substantially more challenging and expensive to assemble due to their lower mintages and high collector demand.
When purchasing silver trade dollars it is important to acquire coins in Very Fine (VF) or better condition. Coins in VF condition will retain most details on figures and devices, although the exact grading varies by the coin series. One potential exception to this rule is key date coins, where a lower grade may be acceptable.
For example, the 1878 Carson City U.S. trade dollar only had a mintage of 97,000 pieces. But according to U.S. mint records, 44,148 trade dollars were melted in that year. Almost all of these were undoubtedly 1878 issues from the Carson City mint. So it is likely that net issuance was only around 50,000 specimens, with many of those subsequently destroyed or heavily damaged. Therefore, unless your budget is unlimited, acquiring an 1878 Carson City trade dollar below VF condition may not only be acceptable, but your only realistic option.
The other primary consideration when choosing silver trade dollars is ensuring the coins are problem free. It is imperative to avoid pieces that are scratched, holed or damaged in any way. It is also wise to bypass coins that have been harshly cleaned at some point in their lives. A well-worn coin that is brilliantly lustrous is suspect and highly likely to have been cleaned. Instead, look for examples with original surfaces even if it means the coin is toned, dark or slightly tarnished.
Some trade pieces have chopmarks. These are Chinese characters stamped onto the coin by private Chinese banks or moneychangers to guarantee their silver content. In years past, chopmarked coins were considered damaged and thus traded at a discount to non-chopmarked examples.
However, this outdated opinion may be changing as the market for these attractive coins matures and becomes more sophisticated. At a minimum, chopmarks on a silver trade crown prove that the coin in question definitely circulated in the Far East - and more specifically the Chinese market.
With their impressive size, precious metal content and historical significance, silver trade dollars are highly desirable investments. In fact, as of early 2018, prices for these stunning coins have risen by almost 50% in just the last few years alone!
In spite of these rising prices, good examples of common date French Indo-China piastre and British silver trade dollars are still available in the $50 to $250 range. Countermarked Japanese one yen pieces run slightly more, with pricing starting at around $100. U.S. trade dollars are the most expensive of the group with common date varieties in reasonable condition trading for over $200.
Scarce or key dates of any of the series can cost anywhere from several hundred dollars to several thousands of dollars, depending on condition. Key dates of the U.S. trade dollar in particular are difficult to find and correspondingly expensive. However, even an abridged set of these celebrated Far East silver trade coins would constitute a magnificent and compelling tangible asset.
It has been more than 150 years since Horace Greely's famous pronouncement to "Go west, young man". With the rise of China in the modern age, Horace Greeley's illustrious advice to seek fortune on the edges of the globe has stood the test of time. And there are few finer ways of honoring the spirit of that astute motto than by investing in the silver trade dollars of East Asia.
Here is a fine example of a nishu-kin (2 shu) gold coin minted during the Japanese Tokugawa shogunate between 1832 and 1858. The pale gold color is due to the fact that this coin, like most Japanese gold coins of the period, was minted from a gold-silver alloy known as electrum. Tokugawa era Japanese gold coins are often called "samurai money" as an ode to their feudal origins.
We live in a fake world. We are surrounded by fake wood, fake leather and even fake breasts. A world overrun by imitations isn't a particularly new phenomenon either. Even the ancient Romans were deceived by unscrupulous merchants who peddled brass as gold to the unwary. The counterfeit has been with us for a very, very long time.
In modern times, ingenious humans have found innumerable ways to imitate the finer (and by implication more expensive) things in life. But these unconvincing copies are pale facsimiles - mere shadows - of the real article. Those who understand these subtleties also know that genuine items of great beauty and real value are still available for those willing to take the time to look.
Feudal-era Japanese gold coins are one interesting possibility. Minted from the early 17th century until just after the fall of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1869, these distinctly Asian coins reflect the rich samurai culture of feudal Japan. Feudal Japanese gold coins are remnants of a time when Japan was still largely agrarian, feudal and isolated. At this point in its history, Japan was ruled by traditional samurai lords who had cultivated their warrior philosophy for more than a millennium.
The monetary system of Tokugawa era Japan consisted of a disorganized mish-mash of bronze, silver, electrum (an alloy of gold and silver) and gold coins issued in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Theoretically, 16 shu equaled 4 bu, which also equaled 1 ryo. But, in reality, coins traded by weight as bullion pieces. Shu denominations, the smallest of the three, were often, but not always, minted in silver. Bu coins were either silver or gold. Larger denomination ryo coins were exclusively gold.
The Japanese word for silver is "gin" and their word for gold is "kin". Therefore, a one bu silver coin would be called an ichibu gin, which translates as "one-bu silver". Likewise, a similar one bu coin in gold would be called an ichibu kin, or "one-bu gold". Most Tokugawa period Japanese gold coins available in the market today are smaller one (ichi) or two (ni) shu or bu denominations. These coins are called isshu-kin (one-shu gold), nishu-kin (two-shu gold), ichibu-kin (one-bu gold) and nibu-kin (two-bu gold), respectively.
These smaller shu and bu Japanese gold coins from the Tokugawa shogunate have an unusual rectangular shape surrounded by finely beaded borders that is reminiscent of a miniature bar or ingot. Covered in exotic Japanese calligraphy and stylized paulownia flowers, shu and bu gold coins unequivocally exude the style of traditional samurai Japan. The warm, soft glow of their electrum alloy accentuates the intricate details of the pieces, giving them a compellingly tactile sensibility.
Tokugawa Shogunate Shu Japanese Gold Coins For Sale
Due to their high purchasing power, most Japanese gold coins only received light wear. Instead, everyday purchases in Tokugawa era Japan were made using lower value copper or silver coinage. Gold coins were generally hoarded by those lucky enough to acquire them.
For over 250 years, from 1600 to 1868, warlords known as the Tokugawa shogunate ruled over a Japan divided into fiefdoms, each controlled by a local daimyo, or samurai lord. But this traditional feudal structure began to deteriorate in the face of external threats. After maintaining strict international isolation for over 200 years, Japan finally opened to foreign influence and trade when U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry's infamous “Black Ships” entered Edo (Tokyo) Bay in 1853. Japan then spent the next two decades immersed in a complex crosscurrent of radical new ideas and intense political turmoil known as the Bakamatsu period.
The old ways were changing. A progressive faction that wished to modernize the island nation struggled against reactionary samurai forces that wanted to isolate the country again. These conservative samurai elevated the Japanese emperor, who had previously been a figurehead, to an almost mythical status while rallying around the slogan, “Revere the emperor, expel the barbarians (foreigners).”
Ultimately, this internal conflict undermined the rotting, ineffective Tokugawa shogunate, leading to its collapse in 1868. This ushered in the Meiji era, a time of rapid modernization and industrialization in Japan. Feudal Japan and the samurai warriors who ruled over it were irrevocably lost to the mists of time.
The Tokugawa shogunate, like many governments throughout history, had an overspending problem. Maintaining the excessively lavish lifestyle of the shogun and supporting his numerous retainers required more money than the government could easily collect via taxes. It also didn't help that most peasant farmers paid their taxes in the form of rice instead of money. Consequently, the Tokugawa regime almost continuously debased the currency during its lengthy reign.
Japanese gold coins from the early Tokugawa shogunate started the 17th century with a fairly high purity of over 84% fine. By the mid 19th century some of these Tokugawa shogunate gold coins had fallen to just over 12% fine gold. Debasement didn't occur in a strictly chronologically linear manner however; the purity of feudal Japanese gold coins varied widely, depending on the denomination and era struck. The shogunate diluted their gold coins with silver instead of a baser metal like copper, leading to the many electrum (gold-silver) issues of the late Tokugawa era.
Tokugawa Shogunate Bu Japanese Gold Coins For Sale
The nishu-kin (2 shu) gold coins most commonly found for sale today were minted between 1832 and 1858, in the Tenpo era. They are composed of 30% gold and 70% silver and measure approximately 13 mm (0.51 inches) long by 7 mm (0.28 inches) wide. They weigh about 1.62 grams (0.052 troy ounces) each. These small, intriguing coins are "samurai money" in the truest sense of the term.
Their larger nibu-kin (2 bu) cousins have four times the nominal face value of the smaller nishu-kin coins, but are otherwise quite similar. The nibu-kin type most frequently seen on the market today was produced during the upheaval of the very early Meiji era in 1868 and 1869. These Japanese gold coins circulated in the tumultuous period of rapid change immediately following the disintegration of the Tokugawa shogunate.
These late shogunate nibu-kin coins are composed of 22% gold and 78% silver and measure 19 mm (0.75 inches) long by 11 mm (0.43 inches) wide. They weigh around 3.00 grams (0.096 troy ounces) each and were the last Japanese coins made in the old, bar style. All later coins of the Meiji era were minted in the Western, machine-struck, round style that is familiar to us today.
For those looking for the ultimate in samurai money, larger denomination gold coins were also produced: the koban (1 ryo), goryoban (5 ryo) and oban (10 ryo) denominations. These impressively large coins circulated exclusively as bullion pieces, trading by weight. The massive goryoban and oban coins are extremely rare and can command astronomical prices (up to several tens of thousands of dollars each) when they do come to market. The smaller koban pieces are more common, though still scarce and highly desirable.
These large, Tokugawa-era Japanese gold coins are oval in shape, with flowing script and artistic flower seals against a background of horizontal grooves or crenulations. The reverse is blank except for scattered hallmark stamps and sometimes an era indicator. Few gold coins are as profoundly attractive as these masterpieces of the feudal Japanese coiner's art. As a result, they are in perpetually high demand with prices to match.
Tokugawa Shogunate Koban and Oban Japanese Gold Coins For Sale
Regardless of the creeping infiltration of the pseudo into the modern world there is one thing that is certain – Japanese gold coins of the Tokugawa shogunate are as genuine - as real - as it gets. As with most coins, the price of these cultural treasures is dependent on condition, rarity and the era minted. It is recommended that that investors look for specimens that are damage-free and possess good eye appeal.
The more common nishu-kin (2 shu) and nibu-kin (2 bu) examples from the 19th century generally trade in the $50 to $300 range per coin, while koban typically start above $600. Prices quickly escalate for scarcer pieces from the 18th century or earlier, especially kobans and other large denominations. For investment purposes, acquiring more common examples in Very Fine or better in condition would be advisable. Fine condition or better is acceptable for larger denominations or scarcer specimens. Condition becomes a secondary consideration for extremely rare pieces, assuming they can be found at all.
The Tokugawa shogunate was a simpler time of noble samurai, elegant geisha and rough peasant farmers that succumbed to the encroachment of the modern era. Feudal Japanese gold coins represent a satisfying and captivating way to acquire a physical link to this near mythical period in Japanese history. In a world where so much is so artificial, a collection of gold "samurai money" possesses an allure that is difficult to deny.
This antique Japanese netsuke sculpture depicts a smaller rat playfully piggybacking on a larger rat. Although it looks like ivory, this example is probably made from either bone or antler. Given the relative crudeness of this piece, it could be a 20th century copy made for the tourist trade.
Americans like things big. We live in a country the size of a continent. We drive SUVs that can seat 8 or, alternatively, accommodate a pygmy hippo. We pioneered the concept of the 6 bedroom, 3500 square foot McMansion, complete with in-ground swimming pool. Hell, the unofficial motto of the state of Texas - which, incidentally, is comfortably larger than the nation of France - is "Everything's bigger in Texas!" But sometimes our obsession with super-sizing everything can blind us to the subtle, understated charms of small things. And rarely are all the finest elements of small design more fully realized than in Edo and Meiji era Japanese Netsuke carvings.
The Japanese people have traditionally been - and still are today - masters of the miniature. This artistic gift is perhaps most evident in their incredibly skilled Netsuke sculpture. Netsuke are diminutive Japanese carvings that emphasize the wonderful plasticity of their constituent natural materials. They were an integral part of the traditional Japanese wardrobe during the Edo and early Meiji periods, from the mid 17th century to the end of the 19th century.
The primary Japanese garment during this time was the silk kimono, which was worn by both men and women. However, kimonos have no pockets. As a result, the Japanese used a pouch or purse to carry around money or other small items. A netsuke secured a traveler's money pouch to his kimono sash and was used by everyone from samurai to peasants to courtesans.
Affordable Edo and Meiji Era Japanese Netsuke For Sale
Over the course of the Edo period netsuke evolved from purely functional items into increasingly elaborate works of art meant to display the wearer's wealth, sophistication or even political views. Edo era Japan was a highly stratified society. The shogun (ruler) and his subordinate daimyo (lords) were at the top of the social pyramid followed by samurai, farmers, craftsmen and finally merchants. However, centuries of peace during the prosperous Tokugawa shogunate meant that the samurai class - near the top of the social order - became increasingly impoverished while merchants and craftsmen - at the bottom of society - became progressively wealthier.
The shoguns attempted to preserve Japan's feudal social order by promulgating strict sumptuary laws. These laws prevented people in the lower classes from openly flaunting their wealth by building lavish houses or wearing fine clothing. Newly rich craftsmen and merchants responded to this repression, in part, by purchasing luxurious and fanciful netsuke for their personal use.
In 1853, a naval expedition under U.S. commodore Matthew Perry entered Edo (Tokyo) bay and demanded that the previously isolationist Japanese open up trade relations with the West. This event threw the shogunate into a crisis that eventually precipitated its downfall. After the collapse of the Tokugawa shogunate in the late 1860s, the Japanese increasingly adopted Western style clothing.
As a result, netsuke gradually became unnecessary, falling into disuse during the Meiji era in the late 19th century. Even after becoming anachronisms, devoted artists from Japan - as well as other countries - have continued to craft lavish, whimsical netsuke sculptures to the present day. This validates the netsuke's legitimacy as an objet d'art par excellence.
Edo and Meiji Era Japanese Netsuke For Sale
Antique Japanese netsuke come in a variety of different forms. The most common are katabori or figural designs. Popular themes for katabori netsuke were plants, animals, everyday scenes, holy men and gods. Round, flattened shapes that resemble large buttons or discs are known as manju netsuke. Mennetsuke (mask netsuke) were also extremely popular, imitating either noh, bugaku or kyogen masks from the Japanese theatre.
Japanese netsuke were made from myriad different materials, but preeminent among them was ivory. It is estimated that up to half of all netsuke were made from ivory. Although ivory is a compellingly tactile, durable and beautiful material, its sale has been banned in most developed nations to combat poaching. This, unfortunately, renders buying or selling elephant ivory netsuke technically illegal in many jurisdictions. Luckily, the Japanese also produced netsuke in a variety of remarkably attractive materials other than ivory, including boar tusk, horn, bone, lacquer and metal.
Wood is the most frequently encountered netsuke material besides ivory. Species such as boxwood, cherry, cypress, yew and cedar were commonly used while exotic, imported woods like ebony and rosewood were employed less often. All of these woods possess exceptionally dense, compact grains that resist wear and are well-suited to finely detailed carving work. The warm, dark patina of a fine boxwood netsuke from the age of the samurai is both distinctively mellow and unmistakably alluring.
Edo and Meiji Era Wooden Japanese Netsuke For Sale
The single greatest factor in determining a netsuke's value is the execution and skill of the carving itself. This criterion overshadows every other consideration when evaluating a netsuke's desirability and future return potential.
Condition is another major factor in determining the value of a Japanese netsuke. Genuine examples - all over a century old - will invariably possess an attractive, even and undisturbed patina. Due to their age, small chips, cracks or minor blemishes are acceptable on original netsuke. Major damage, however, is undesirable and renders a piece uninvestable.
Although uncommon, some netsuke makers signed their miniature sculptures just as any other artist would sign his work. The presence of a signature does not significantly affect a netsuke's price unless it belongs to one of the most famous masters. A netsuke's material, likewise, rarely impacts its value.
High-End Edo and Meiji Era Japanese Netsuke For Sale
Beware of crude "netsuke-like" carvings when acquiring specimens. These were produced in vast quantities in 20th century Japan for the Western tourist trade. These pieces were not meant to be fakes per se, but more like imitations. They lack the delicacy and refinement of genuine netsuke carvings. Consequently, they have no collector's value and should be avoided. Verifying that a netsuke has two holes placed near each other (originally for the cords attaching it to a kimono sash) should help weed out some of the clumsier reproductions.
Their sweeping, delicate lines and bold, organic forms infuse netsuke sculpture with an unmistakable aura of Eastern sophistication. Simple, yet original, 19th century netsuke are available from around $175. More complex, intricately crafted examples of these overlooked investments readily trade for several hundred dollars. Truly exquisite netsuke start at around $1,000, escalating quickly into the thousands of dollars for museum quality pieces.
Few things exemplify the pure artistry of the diminutive better than authentic Edo and Meiji era Japanese netsuke. As some of the world's finest works of miniature sculpture, netsuke prove that while sometimes bigger is better, other times small is the best of all.
A finely crafted Japanese lacquerware jewelry box employing raden (inlay) ornamentation. The iridescent mother of pearl decorative inlay contrasts sharply with the coal black background, creating an interesting and visually powerful effect.
It is said that the Japanese have a distinct national character. They are widely considered to be industrious and extremely attentive to detail, yet also staunch traditionalists. As a result, the Japanese have traditionally excelled at repetitive, highly-skilled crafts that take many long years of training to perfect. This unique mix of Japanese cultural attributes has given rise to one of the world's great unsung art forms - Japanese lacquerware.
Urushi, or Japanese lacquerware, exudes the island nation's sleek minimalist, yet still naturalistic style. Flowers, mountains, trees and birds dance across lustrously polished lacquer surfaces as if alive. The soft glow of antique lacquer adorned with a stately gold crest of medieval Japanese nobility evokes the prestige and glory of feudal, Edo-era Japan. Inlaid mother of pearl decoration bursts into iridescent animation, radiating vibrantly against a smooth, burnished lacquer background. Lacquerware is truly Japan's most original, and perhaps finest, national craft.
While used in China as long ago as the 3rd century BC, lacquerware only spread to Japan in the 7th century AD. Although not native to their island, the Japanese soon fully embraced this demanding handicraft. Over the passing centuries Japanese craftsmen constantly innovated, eventually raising lacquerware to the nation's pre-eminent art form by the time of the Tokugawa Shogunate during the 18th and 19th centuries. As The West came into contact with Japan during the Age of Exploration, Europe became obsessed with the intricate, fanciful designs and mesmerizing luster of its fine lacquerware. The ill-fated, late 18th century French queen Marie Antoinette was famous for her Japanese lacquerware collection. So was the European monarch August the Strong, the early 18th century King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania. In fact, the word "Japan" itself became a synonym for Japanese lacquerware in England during the Georgian era.
Edo & Meiji Era Japanese Lacquerware Boxes For Sale
The hard lacquer coating used in the production of Japanese lacquerware originates from the toxic sap of the urushi tree (Rhus verniciflua). This sap contains the same chemical irritant found in poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac. Urushi sap is harvested in a very similar way to natural rubber from rubber trees. A series of parallel grooves are cut into the urushi tree's bark. The sap that weeps from these wounds is collected, filtered and purified before being applied to a base object. Once processed, urushi sap loses all its toxic characteristics and becomes completely safe. The sap can be used on a wide range of materials including paper, plastic, metal, leather and glass, but is most often used on wood.
It takes anywhere from 5 to 40 individual layers of sap to complete a piece of Japanese lacquerware. After each layer is applied by hand, the wet sap is hardened via a chemical process known as polymerization by subjecting it to a sauna-like environment of elevated heat and humidity. This is followed by laborious sanding to prepare the dried lacquer to accept the next coat of sap. This painstaking layering process continues with progressively finer sanding grit until the final layer is polished with an incredibly fine abrasive - traditionally powdered stag horn and oil.
Vintage Japanese Lacquerware Boxes For Sale
The resulting hardened lacquer finish is incredibly durable, resisting water, salt, acid, alkali and alcohol with ease. It can also resist temperatures up to approximately 300 degrees centigrade (572 degrees Fahrenheit)! Lacquer's only apparent weakness is its propensity to degrade after prolonged exposure to the harsh ultraviolet rays of strong, direct sunlight. Japanese lacquerware is so enduring that it is common for pieces to last over a century, even with regular use. In fact, the old Japanese saying about lacquerware is "Once you buy it, it will last through your grandchildren’s generation." In spite of Japanese lacquerware's extreme toughness, using it in the microwave, dishwasher, refrigerator or oven is strongly discouraged because temperature extremes can cause the wood base to warp, thus damaging the lacquer finish.
A variety of striking decorative techniques are used in Japanese lacquer-work. Most commonly, the lacquer itself is dyed - usually a deep cinnabar red or charcoal black. Of course, the lacquer can also be left clear if the artist wishes to accentuate an object's underlying wood grain. Another technique frequently used is called "maki-e." In maki-e, powdered gold or silver dust is sprinkled onto the still wet lacquer in the shape of a decoration. Once the lacquer is cured, the gold or silver dust forms a glittering, shimmering metallic design that is permanently embedded in the surface of the hardened lacquer. The final type of decoration commonly encountered is called "raden." Raden is an inlaying technique where small pieces of bone, ivory or mother of pearl are inset into the surface of an item to form a design or picture. Multiple layers of clear lacquer are then applied over the entire item and polished to a high luster. Japanese lacquerware crafters are true artists, often using a combination of contrasting decorative technique simultaneously for maximum visual effect.
Traditional Japanese Lacquerware Bento (Lunch) Boxes For Sale
Most Japanese lacquerware shares similar styles, motifs and forms regardless of its date of manufacture. This can make date attribution difficult. Edo and Meiji era (pre-1912) Japanese lacquerware designs often have a slightly stiffer and more formal appearance, even when portraying naturalistic scenes. However, by the time of the Taisho and Showa eras (1912 onwards), decoration becomes very subtlety looser and freer in execution due to Western artistic influence. Another dating hint is when a distinctly non-Japanese artistic style is employed. For example, Art Deco design elements would suggest an early 20th century origin. Japanese lacquerware was also produced in different forms over the decades. For example, incense boxes and Inro (a Japanese wallet for use with kimonos) are indicative of Edo or Meiji era 19th century lacquer-work. While still notoriously tough to date, all of these clues used together can help to properly attribute Japanese lacquerware.
When buying Japanese lacquerware for investment purposes, the foremost consideration is quality workmanship. There is a very broad quality range of lacquerware available in the marketplace today. Low quality lacquerware is hastily manufactured using synthetic, polymer-based lacquers instead of genuine sap from the urushi tree. In addition, poor quality specimens will invariably use far fewer layers of lacquer than a high quality piece. Good quality lacquerware will always possess many layers of urushi lacquer - and even more layers when richly decorated. The delicate artistic treatment of any decoration is another hallmark of fine vintage Japanese lacquerware. A legitimate, investment-grade specimen will possess intricately detailed designs or scenes that are precisely rendered. Poor quality lacquerware will have sloppily or nebulously executed designs.
Edo & Meiji Era Japanese Lacquerware Bowls & Plates For Sale
When looking for good investment returns, it is best to avoid Japanese lacquerware that is plain, with no decoration. While Japanese craftsmanship naturally tends toward the stylistically uncluttered, lacquerware with no embellishment whatsoever is unlikely to ever be highly desirable. As with all antiques, condition is also of paramount importance. As a general rule, heavily damaged examples should be avoided. Minor damage to lacquerware can often be repaired and thus may be acceptable in otherwise exceptional or historically important pieces.
Although lacquer can be coated on a variety of base materials, high quality Japanese lacquerware is almost always applied to wood. Plastics are often used as the base for cheaper, lower quality pieces using synthetic lacquers. A good way to check the quality of a vintage lacquer item is carefully balance it loosely in one hand and then tap it with your finger. Natural lacquer over wood will tend to give a clear, resonant sound while cheap, synthetic lacquer over plastic will give a dull, lifeless thud. It is no coincidence that fine musical instruments through the ages - ranging from 17th century Stradivarius violins to 1950s Gibson Les Paul electric guitars - have traditionally been constructed from fine tonewoods coated with many layers of natural lacquer.
Vintage Japanese Lacquerware Bowls & Plates For Sale
Within a specific class of antiques, it is a general rule that the older the item, the more expensive it becomes. This rule only marginally applies in the case of vintage Japanese lacquerware. Even recent specimens from late in the 20th century are very desirable if they are well made. Due to the highly-skilled and labor-intensive nature of lacquerware manufacturing, little high quality production emanates from Japan in any given year. And because fine lacquerware crafting does not lend itself to automation, this situation is unlikely to ever change. Therefore, there is little worry that the market will suddenly be flooded by modern, high quality lacquerware.
As with all antiques, pricing for Japanese lacquerware varies greatly with quality. 19th century Edo and Meiji era lacquerware is typically rather expensive, with prices ranging from just over $200 for simple examples to several thousand dollars for ornate, expertly crafted ones. Taisho and early Showa era lacquerware from the first half of the 20th century is nearly as expensive as older specimens. Japanese lacquerware of more modern vintage is usually slightly less costly, with entry-level investment-grade examples starting at a little over $150 each. Japanese lacquerware is truly one of the greatest investment secrets of today's art world - a glittering gem in the rough. And it is a testament to the nature of the Japanese people that they have managed to keep this magnificent art form alive for over a thousand years.