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.
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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.
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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.