Collecting Japanese Netsuke

Collecting Netsuke By Willi Bosshard – Excerpt from Daruma 39

Over the past 10 years, Alistair Seton of Daruma has asked me a number of times to provide an article on my hobby of collecting netsuke.

I got hooked during my second trip to Japan, from January to March 1965. I had been to the Land of the Rising Sun just after the 1964 Olympics and was very interested in Japanese prints, mostly the fine landscapes by Ando Hiroshige and to a lesser degree Hokusai’s great prints showing the 100 Famous Views of Edo.

One Saturday morning, I was in Shinmonzen Street, bustling then with foreigners and Japanese alike. In the galleries of Tsuruki & Co., I was buying the famous print of Kambara, one of the 53 Stations on the Tokaido to add to my Shono and Kameyama. I paid the then astronomical amount of ¥110,000, just a little over US$300 at the then prevailing rate of 360 yen to the dollar. Of course, at today’s prices, it was a steal especially considering the quality of the snowy landscape.

As I was negotiating with 70 year old Mr. Nakayama, Tsuruki’s multi-lingual chief clerk, I noticed other foreigners looking at some tiny ivory and wood figures. I asked to see some myself and a tray was brought over to me right away. Low and behold, I saw the most intriguing miniature carvings as if from the life of my favourite woodblock prints.

An ivory zodiac carving with the intriguing signature of Masatsugu (above) felt especially desirable as a souvenir, so I bought it. All 12 animals were carved and could be seen and counted. The largest was a horse in the middle, with a tiny rat sitting on top of it. Its price was 56 dollars, and I was told it had been carved at the turn of the century. The actual words by Mr. Nakayama were: late 19th century netsuke for commercial export

Of course, I later found that it was carved much more recently, probably in the early 1960s by a Kyoto carver named Hiraga who normally signed his pieces Meigyokusai. He had been asked by the Tsuruki company to carve 100 pieces and apply some very famous signatures. Later I found the same subject there with Okatomo, Masanao and Tomotada signatures.

That netsuke is still in my collection but now with the correct Meigyokusai signature on a red lacquer tablet. It still irks me that the change of signature from the obviously false Masatsugu to the correct Meigyokusai cost me an unbelievable $70, or more than the netsuke itself.

Getting started

I did not buy another netsuke for 2 or so years until I returned to Japan in early 1967 to take up a job at Nestle in Kobe. But then, my collection started to grow rapidly as I traveled the country and found many good buys. At that time, the size of your budget limited one’s buying, not the lack of desirable, fine quality pieces.

I missed the famous sales in London of the Hindson collection and others, as I heard only later of these great opportunities. The Japanese dealers, of course, had no interest in telling you if they knew about those early auctions and at that early time, I did not know other collectors in Japan or abroad.

The first to tell me about them was Raymond Bushell, the illustrious netsuke authority and author. I made it a point to meet him about once a month, either in his office in Nagata-cho near the old Hilton or at the Press Club, where I showed him my new acquisitions. He always had some nice words for one’s pieces even if they were not the greatest works of art.

But now and then, as I got to know him better, I saw him take a special interest at one netsuke or another, and knew I had acquired a super piece. More than once, he offered to trade me one of his pieces for what I had, but I never succumbed.

Collecting

It became quickly clear for me that there was a tremendous wealth of subject matter to be collected, from real and imaginary animals to humans and imaginary beings, legends fruits, vegetables, insects, etc. Also, there were countless materials used though the majority of the pieces were in either tsuge (boxwood) or animal ivory (zoge). Instinctively, I started collecting animals, imaginary animals, and they were mostly older and thus stronger (heavier) pieces, with an early leaning towards ivory. I found worksheet from the late seventies and low and behold, 75 % of my netsuke then were carved in ivory. I later got to see and buy more of the great sculptures in tsuge that comes to light when a natural patina has formed due to long wear.

Today, I have probably 60 % ivory and 40 % wood netsuke, naturally also many other materials like boar tusk, black persimmon, marine ivory, tiger, whale and bear tooth, umimatsu (sea pine) petrified wood, amber and even a late 19th century rat on a candlestick in 15 carat gold.

When it came to part with some of my pieces for the 1994 exhibition and sale, I was guided by the following considerations:

Where I had many of the same subject, cull the weaker carvings (rats, tigers, monkeys, etc.), ginko nuts, also I tended to keep the heavier bulkier pieces that attract me more than the smaller ones.

Keep 18th century, let 19th go if one has to go.

The other day, I went through that book again and realized that fortunately, some of the better netsuke were not sold, probably because of a too high price expectation. In the recent turmoil on of the stock market, I am only too happy that I did not get money for all of them in 1994 – it would have gotten lost in the New Market bust or in the ensuing problems of 2002.

Setbacks

Over time, I was able to acquire a number of fine to very fine netsuke and even an occasional great piece at prices that were then the top of the market. They were good buys because of the quality of the carving, the materials, the subject rendered and the provenance. What did irk me was the fact that when Raymond occasionally offered to sell me one of his netsuke, he sold only cash against delivery and would never take Yen cheques even after knowing me for over 10 years.

So when in the late 80s he insisted on acquiring my superb ivory tiger by Otoman (left), the only carver from Kyushu (see Bernard Hurtig’s The Netsuke Hall of Fame) for inclusion in his gift to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, I eventually agreed but requested payment in cash at the time of delivery. It was so much cash that I agreed to accept a banker’s draft on the Bank of America. The tiger still snarls proudly in the Raymond & Francis Bushell Wing of the LACMA on Wilshire Boulevard. I go see it about once every two years when in that wonderful West Coast City.

Another of my early disappointments came after a short visit to London. I had done some business in Croydon and was wondering if I had time to go into the City for a little shopping. Swissair agreed to put me on the last flight to Zurich, so I had 2 hours or so which I spent going to the shops of Mr. Douglas Wright, in Curzon Street and last to Eskenazi at 166 Piccadilly. At that time, I only knew the late Luigi Bandini but not having made an appointment, he was not on the premises. A Greek national came to inquire what he could do for me and I said I just wanted to browse.

I found a wonderful wood tiger (below) by the Tamba artist Toyomasa but at £5800, it was just a bit high. Other netsuke, though fine, meant nothing to me and I returned to the tiger. I noticed that it had not only the traditional Toyomasa eye inlays, but even the fangs were inlaid with ivory. I had to have it. But I also wanted to think it over once more as it meant about half a year’s salary at that time.

The Greek clerk did not request a deposit but I did have £100 in cash to spare which I nevertheless offered as ‘earnest money’ but he said there was no need for it. At that time, Eskenazi was not yet equipped to accept credit cards, so we eventually agreed that he would reserve the piece till Monday and Luigi would discuss payment and delivery terms when I called to confirm the purchase.

I was so anxious to secure the netsuke that I called at 10 AM sharp, only to find that the UK was an hour behind Switzerland. So I called at 11 AM and the Greek man sounded a bit surprised to have me on the line, confirming my determination to buy the netsuke. He started stuttering: I finally realised he had sold the netsuke to a man unknown to them—a first time netsuke buyer—who had come into the shop on Friday shortly after I had left.

When asked if our verbal agreement meant nothing to him or Eskenazi, he said that he felt I was not going to buy the piece and that it was no risk to let it go as it had sat there for months, interesting many collectors but too highly priced to find a buyer. I asked to speak to Luigi who was not yet in. I requested that he call me back the minute he got in.

In the afternoon Luigi did finally call; he had obviously been fully apprised of the situation. He listened to my story and was truly apologetic about the unfortunate situation but what could he do now? The netsuke had been paid in full by check, which was covered when they had called the bank, and the client had walked out of Eskenazi with the tiger.

I was really mad, but what could I do? Sue? What would the purpose have been? I swallowed my pride, said something about never trusting a Greek and hung up. In retrospect, I believe that this experience must have been the reason why, over the next 35 years, I never bought a single piece from Eskenazi though I acquired a total of nearly 500 netsuke.