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Little Treasures in the Palm of Your Hand
by Bob Brooke


Antique Japanese netsuke (pronounced "netski") have been prized by collectors since the late 19th century for their beauty and aesthetic appeal, as well as the legends behind them. With exotic names like katabon, manju, ryusa, and, they evoke visions of a far away culture so different from that in the West.

Originally designed as a decorative counterweight to secure a Japanese man’s inro, or small wooden or lacquered purse, netsuke, meaning “root,” evolved during Victorian times to become objects of status and a reflection of the person who wore them. Designed to carry a gentleman’s personal seal, needed to sign all legal documents, the inro was eventually divided into sections to hold money, perfume, drugs, and tobacco. Two strings attached to the netsuke helped secure the inro around the man’s obi or kimono sash.

Sculptors most often carved netsuke from wood or ivory, but as their popularity and status increased, they made them of richer materials, such as mother of pearl, porcelain, lacquer, amber, and semi-precious stones. If a collector finds a netsuke made of two materials, it's probably from a later period. Ranging in size from one to three inches, sculptors carved these tiny treasures in a wide variety of forms, including shells, animals, vegetables, and favorite characters from Oriental folklore and religion.

Netsuke is widely available. You may find them shaped like badgers, known for
their mischievous pranks, or like carp, the symbol for courage. You may even discover ones shaped like the baku a mythic, elephant-like creature believed to eat the nightmares of those who sleep on a piece of paper bearing its name.

Netsuke carvers worked with general subjects but in an often lighthearted, humorous way. They made their netsuke originally of wood to be worn, and eventually discarded after daily use. Carvers also made sure their netsuke had no sharp edges and balanced them so they hung correctly on the man’s sash. A netsuke’s size depended on the weight of the inro and the proportions of the owner. After the Portuguese introduced tobacco to Japan, smoking became fashionable for merchants and a sign of success for men not of the samurai class. They wanted more ornate netsuke to complement the elegant tobacco paraphernalia they began to carry.

Carvers used the tusks of walrus or narwhal or the teeth of a sperm whale, as well as woods such as mahogany and ebony, to carve the best netsuke. They used ivory because it was plentiful. Most of the best netsuke sculptors at the peak of fancy netsuke lived near where marine ivory was more plentiful. They began using this material because they knew how to carve it. It’s not only the subject of each netsuke, rather than the material used, but the extraordinary workmanship that gives each one its special artistic appeal.

Eventually, netsuke represented the fashions, fancies, and fables of Japanese society. After the reopening of Japan to the West in 1853, Japanese gentlemen soon took to wearing western style suits with pockets, and the need for carrying an inro with its accompanying netsuke quickly disappeared.

Some of the best Japanese artists, such as Yamada Hojitsu and Shuzan, carved netsuke. But it’s those who specialized in making them that are highly desired by collectors, for they combined creative designs with exquisite finishes.

The value of netsuke depends on the artist, region, material and skill of the sculptor. North American collectors seem to favor katabori, or pieces which represent an identifiable object. Netsuke of ivory and wood from the late 18th or 19th century can sell for as high as $10,000, with those made of a combination of materials selling for $500 and up. Before starting to collect netsuke, you should be aware of the many fakes that poor craftsmen make for the tourist trade.

And these fakes seem to be flourishing since fine netsuke is beginning to get scarce. Reproductions are showing up in shops and shows. While the ivory may be genuine, the pieces have been "aged" by boiling in strong tea. Other forgers smear their copies with dirt or brown stain to simulate the dust of use.

With netsuke, it pays to be an educated collector. Once you’ve seen an example of fine netsuke, the lack of the great care and skill used in making many pieces becomes obvious.


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