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Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2012

Demand for antique netsuke heats up in West


LONDON — Dealers in London are witnessing growing interest from buyers in Japanese antique netsuke and "inro" as new world records are set at auctions.

News photo
Antique guardian: A "shishi," or lion dog, netsuke fetched a world-record $416,000 in November at an auction in London. KYODO

London-based auction house Bonhams announced world-record prices for a netsuke (a miniature carved ornament once used to attach purses or other articles to kimono sashes) and an inro (a traditional Japanese portable case consisting of nested boxes) at the November sale of a collection belonging to Swiss art collector Harriet Szechenyi.

Experts say this represents an enduring and growing fascination in the West for the intricate, well-crafted possessions that formed part of traditional Japanese attire up to the 19th century.

During the sale of the Szechenyi collection, the world record for netsuke was broken three times, with a late 18th-century ivory netsuke of a "shishi" (lion dog) fetching the most at £265,250 ($416,000) after a bidding frenzy.

A single lacquer case inro by Shibata Zeshin (1807-1891), one of the most famous painters and lacquerers of the 19th century, meanwhile reached a record-breaking figure of £265,250.

That surpassed the previous record in 2010 of £162,000 for an inro from a collection that used to belong to Briton Edward Wrangham.

"There has always been an attraction with netsuke in the West," said Suzannah Yip, head of the Japanese department at Bonhams. "This is because they are always small, well-carved, portable and very tactile."

She said the Szechenyi collection was one of the world's finest in private hands and it was understandable that it broke records.

But Yip believes it also underlines the growing attraction of both netsuke and inro in the West, which is now a stronger market than in Japan, where collectors' tastes are often quite different.

Rosemary Bandini, a netsuke and inro dealer, said London has always been an important market and following a downturn in the 1990s she has noticed a growing interest from international customers since 2009.

Edmund de Waal, author of the critically acclaimed and best-selling "The Hare with Amber Eyes," a family memoir that centers on a collection of netsuke from Japan, said: "I think netsuke are popular because they are the comprehensible end of Japanese art.

"The thing about netsuke is their immediacy, they are genuinely funny and beautiful, which means they can be universally popular.

"They are tactile and tell stories. They are like snuffboxes and little ivories. They are for connoisseurs and can be displayed in cabinets and don't have that slightly precious quality of some Western objects."

De Waal said museums in Britain have reported a growing interest in netsuke as a result of his book, which has sold more than 700,000 copies worldwide.

Bandini said animals are usually the first thing to attract collectors, and the publication of de Waal's book led to an increased interest from people who had not encountered netsuke before.

"They come in quest of a hare with amber eyes, but may well leave with an ivory rat, a wooden cat and ox."

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