The scowling figure who is looking skyward represents a sennin, or immortal person, who is holding a mokugyo, a wooden percussion instrument used while reciting Buddhist texts. This relatively large (3 7/8") netsuke is carved from bone, and the mokugyo appears to contain a loose ball inside. It sold for $27,140 (est. $12,000/18,000).
This lifelike bundle of five bamboo shoots is carved from wood and dates from the late 19th or early 20th century. Extremely well detailed, with shaded staining to achieve its realistic appearance, the 2 1/8" netsuke is by Morita Soko of Tokyo (1879-1935), whose signature is on an ivory tablet inlaid to the reverse. It sold in the room for $7670 (est. $4000/5000).
This is a baku. Although he is not a particularly handsome character, he is a supernatural being said to be the eater of bad dreams. This 2¾" carving incorporates all of the features of the mythical beast: a long elephant-like snout, tusks, the scaled body of a horse, clawed feet, and flames. This unsigned ivory netsuke with inlaid black eyes dates from the 18th century and is attributed to the Kyoto school of carvers. The highest-priced lot of the sale, it sold for $53,100 (est. $15,000/20,000).
Japanese folk legend has it that when an inanimate object reaches 100 years of age, a spirit, or yoki, causes it to become animate. This umbrella or parasol apparently has celebrated its hundredth birthday, and true to the legend, it has taken on several human-like attributes. It stands on a single leg and has two arms, a rather grotesque face, and a long, protruding tongue. This 4 7/8" unsigned stag horn netsuke with eye pupils of inlaid brass probably dates from the late 18th century. It sold for $22,420 (est. $1600/2200).
This late 18th- or early 19th-century unsigned ivory netsuke with finely carved hair and coat detail and inlaid eye pupils is attributed to the Osaka carver Garaku. The creature depicted is identified as Nuye. The 1 1/8" beast is seated, facing rearward with its snake-form tail winding over its legs and with the snake’s head toward the front. It sold for $28,320 (est. $10,000/12,000).
This late 18th-century ivory netsuke depicts a dragon rising from an alms bowl amid a vapor cloud. Though unsigned, it is attributed to the Kyoto school of carvers. The 2 3/8" carving exhibits finely detailed features and scales, and the dragon’s eye pupils are inlaid. It brought $15,340 (est. $8000/10,000).
Quinn’s Auction Galleries, Falls Church, Virginia
Photos courtesy Quinn’s Auction Galleries
On December 7, 2012, Quinn’s Auction Galleries, Falls Church, Virginia, offered a single-owner specialty sale: the Helen and Jack Mang collection of Japanese netsuke. The Mangs’ passion for netsuke began in the 1950’s, and over the years the couple developed a noteworthy collection of the miniature sculptures. They were not only collectors but also enthusiastic students of the decorative art form. As they collected, they educated themselves on the relationship of netsuke with the history and customs of Japan, and their collection reflected that broad interest. The Mangs were active within the netsuke community, and Helen was a founding member of the International Netsuke Society. Both have now passed, John in 2003 and Helen in 2012.
Marsha Vargas Handley, president of the International Netsuke Society, described the Mang collection as one of the fine early collections. She remarked that it is becoming increasingly rare to see larger collections that have remained intact for such a long time. She said Jack and Helen Mang had begun their collecting at the right time and had bought well over the years. In so doing, they had acquired many top-quality carvings.
The sale comprised 698 lots and generated a total of $1,674,815 (including buyers’ premiums). Quinn’s published a complete color catalog for this sale, with detailed photographs of each lot and of the signatures of the 471 identified netsuke carvers represented in the auction. The catalog also included a reprint of a 1983 article about the Mangs and their collection, published in volume 3, number 4 of the Netsuke Kenkyukai Study Journal. David Quinn said the firm plans to republish the catalog, including the prices realized, so it could be used as a reference book by collectors and others interested in netsuke.
The highlight of the sale was an 18th-century Kyoto school ivory netsuke of a baku; it graced the front and back covers of the catalog and was reproduced actual size on the back. A baku is a rather positive character, despite his fierce appearance, for he is the eater of bad dreams. The 2¾" long carving sold for $53,100, more than three times its low estimate. Sweet dreams indeed!
The sale itself was rather straightforward and characterized by the overtones that seem to be part of all auctions today. Fine examples and exceptional items brought a premium, while the more ordinary netsuke seemed to lag disproportionately behind. Although the sold percentage was high, over 95%, more than a third of the lots were hammered down at or below their low estimates. (Note: In the descriptions that accompany the photographs, only the largest dimension of the netsuke is given.)
For more information, contact Quinn’s Auction Galleries at (703) 532-5632; Web site (http://quinnsauction.com).
The collecting of netsuke is an extremely specialized field. To appreciate these carvings, even at an introductory level, a brief overview of the art form and its associated vocabulary will be valuable. Apologies are offered in advance to serious collectors for any oversimplification of the terms used in describing this unique collecting niche.
Netsuke are very small, intricately carved ornamental objects that are meant to be attached to the free end of the cord that is itself attached to a pouch or case that holds personal items belonging to a kimono-wearing Japanese man. In the case of a well-to-do person, the case may be a decorated box, or inro; for a merchant or laborer, the cord may be connected to a tobacco pouch or, perhaps, a case containing a smoking pipe. Today, we might equate the netsuke, cord, and case to a wallet or document pouch that is attached to a man’s belt with a chain and hook. The cord was tucked under the wearer’s kimono sash, and the netsuke acted as a toggle or fob, thus securing the inro or pouch.
The operative phrases are “very small” and “intricately carved.” For the most part, netsuke are tiny. It is difficult to conceive of the time, patience, and artistry required for an 18th- or 19th-century carver to execute the level of intricate detail that is displayed on such small surfaces.
The word “netsuke” is both singular and plural. While netsuke is an overarching category of carving, many collections also include the associated accoutrements. For the most part, the Mang collection appeared to contain three general types of netsuke: (1) traditional netsuke figures and forms; (2) manju netsuke, which are round or flattened medallion-shaped carvings resembling a popular Japanese confection of sweetened bean paste; (3) sashi netsuke, which are longer and thinner than other netsuke and are reminiscent of small figural letter openers.
Netsuke are crafted from a variety of materials, including hardwoods, ivory, bone, metal, and pottery or porcelain. With very few exceptions, netsuke are made from a single piece of material, and coloring is achieved with dyes. The figures they depict range from mythical and supernatural creatures to naturalistic representations of insects, animals, flowers, and humans, as well as theater masks and spiritual figures. Many of them have a somewhat sinister look; snakes, skeletons, ghosts, and demons are often depicted as either devouring something or are presented in a threatening manner.
Most netsuke have two connecting holes, or himotoshi, either drilled into their underside or created as part of the carving. The himotoshi are used to secure the netsuke to the cord that suspends the inro or pouch.
Collectors seem to group netsuke in a number of different ways. Sometimes it is by the specific subject, or by the carved material, or by the object’s date of creation. They may also group them according to general characteristics common among carvers from various locations, such as the Kyoto or Osaka or So (Tokyo) schools. A more precise identification of specific carvers is often possible from signatures on the underside or back of the netsuke itself.
As with many of today’s valued collectibles, netsuke originated as a solution to an everyday problem. Over the years, however, that utilitarian function has given way to carvings that are created as much for their artistic value as for their usefulness. Beginning with the end of Japan’s feudal system in the 1860’s, netsuke carvers were thrown into a free market world where their design and carving skills were valuable from a purely artistic perspective. Today, netsuke are found carefully guarded within major museums or personal collections, or as mass-produced resin-based replicas sold as tourist souvenirs in marketplace vendor stalls.
This ancient art form has even made the leap into the 21st century. An article on the International Netsuke Society’s Web site (www.netsuke.org) displays a photograph of a netsuke being used as a fob at the end of an iPhone lanyard.
This late 18th-century 5" unsigned ivory sashi netsuke is in the form of a well-carved dragon with a loose ball in its mouth. It brought $17,700 (est. $3000/3500).
This 2 7/8" boxwood netsuke dates from the turn of the 20th century. Though unsigned, it is attributed to the Osaka carver Sancho and depicts the Ghost of the Lantern. The head and limbs protrude from tears in the lantern’s body, the head and left arm are movable, and characters are painted on the surface of the lantern body. It sold for $34,220 (est. $4000/5000).
Originally published in the May 2013 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2013 Maine Antique Digest