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Antique Collectible

Rose Mary
By Rosemary McKittrick
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Fox priest, standing with staff; ivory; signed Tomokazu in oval reserve; sold: $1,725. Photo courtesy of I.M. Chait
This is a world of Japanese mythological characters, heroic figures, animals, and scenes from everyday life captured in pocket-sized elegance.

It’s the world of netsuke. Steeped in folklore and mystery, these tiny objects speak in a big way about the traditions and customs of long ago.

Netsuke were to the Japanese what cuff links and watches were to the western man, a form of personal jewelry. When the Japanese gave up the kimono and adopted western dress in the late-1800s, the netsuke lost its everyday function.

According to Japanese folklore, the fox has supernatural powers and can transform itself into anything it wishes. Myth tells of the animal appearing as a woman to bewitch men. When the seduced realizes its true identity, the fox disappears. Because of its powers, the fox is a common subject in netsuke figurines, the miniature sculpture created in Japan over 300-years ago.

The women in Japan would tuck small items into their kimono sleeves because they had no pockets. Males used leather pouches attached to long double strings and pulled through an (obi) long sash worn around the kimono. The string passed through holes in the netsuke and held the pouch in place.

Netsuke started out as a no-frills object made from small stones, shells and gourds. The form varies. Some netsuke resemble buttons. Some are bowl-shaped. Others evolved into coveted three-dimensional works of art and are highly sought after by collectors. By design, netsuke curve and lack sharp edges that could catch the fabric of a kimono.

Some people think all netsuke were made of ivory. Not true. Some were produced in wood and ceramic. Other figures came in a variety of materials such as semi-precious stones, coral and cherry wood.

This is an art form where delicate distinctions prevail. Knowledge is everything. So it’s important to buy from someone you trust.

Fakes called “Hong Kong” netsuke sometimes appear in souvenir shops. The ivory or plastic models are crude modern imitations.

There are also high quality modern copies made in the 18th and 19th century which can sometimes fool the novice collector. In the 19th century, the Japanese also carved copies of earlier netsuke for European collectors.

As you can imagine, the difference in value between a copy and an original is sizable.

There were thousands of netsuke carvers. But not all antique netsuke were signed. In fact, many of the best were not. Collectors often prefer the unsigned examples because they avoid the debate over whether it’s by a famous artist, or a just a copy. Famous names include Masanao, Kokusai and Sosui.

There are also contemporary netsuke being carved that are strictly works of art. Some command more money than the fine antiques.

On Dec. 2, I.M. Chait Gallery in Beverly Hills, Calif., featured its Asian art auction. Here are some current values for netsuke.


Sage, standing with bamboo and leaf fan; wood; signed Chikurin Initsu Koku on reverse; antique; $632.50.

Seven Gods of Good Fortune, on treasure ship; ivory; signed Toman with inscription “Edo Takarabune,” late-19th century; $690.

Rabbit; inlaid amber eyes; ivory; signed in ovoid reserve Ranichi; 19th century; $1,495.

Fox priest, standing with staff; ivory; signed Tomokazu in oval reserve; $1,725.

Horse; seated; ivory; unsigned; possibly 19th century; $2,012.50.

Baku, (eater of bad dreams), double-shell inlaid eyes; ivory; signed Risshisai Kangyoku; contemporary; $2,875.

Coiled dragon; mahogany; double-shell inlaid eyes; signed Bishu; contemporary; $3,450.

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