A beginner’s guide to collecting Netsuke
These beautiful small carvings have captivated Western collectors for well over a century.
In their simplest form, netsuke are toggles - the word netsuke means ‘root-fastening’. Sagemono are items connected to these toggles via a silk cord. An ojime (a small fastening bead) was placed between the two and would slide down to tighten the cord, keeping the sagemono closed and its contents safe. This set was then hung from the obi (a sash-type belt on a traditional Japanese kimono). Kimono, the traditional dress of Japan, had no pockets, individuals would hang their possessions from the obi. Such items included smoking implements, inro (small sectional boxes), writing tools, and money pouches. I’ve even seen portable lanterns and a compass designed to be worn as sagemono.
However, netsuke represent so much more than simple toggles. They provide a window into Japanese culture and daily life. In these sculptures we encounter heroes, villains, and mythical beasts and even humorous daily life situations allowing the viewer to peer back through hundreds of years of Japanese history, culture and daily life, all wrapped up in an object that fits into the palm of your hand.
Looking at early netsuke in paintings, they were often very simple functional items, such as gourds, discs or rings, and not very ornamental or exciting. Netsuke developed over a period of 300 years, transforming from rustic, purely functional items designed to fasten and stop the sagemono from falling, to miniature works of art, worthy, at the highest level, of great appreciation.
As the 18th century moved on and the 19th century approached, we reached in my opinion, the zenith of netsuke production. Schools of carvers across Japan were producing more refined netsuke in a variety of materials and styles. The Kyoto, Nagoya, and TSU schools are a good starting point for the beginner to trace the evolution from the earlier masters to later members of the same schools.
Take, for example, the founder of the Nagoya school, Tametaka, who carved during the 18th century. His group of the four Shijin (Guardian Beasts) is pictured above: compact, powerful and abstract, animals intertwined, making it hard to establish where one starts and another ends. One could spend a lifetime enjoying this netsuke, discovering something new on each handling.
Compare this to one of the later, 19th century members of the Nagoya school, Yoshimasa. His Snake and Pumpkin grouping is smaller, finer in detail, and has more realism to the carving. The scales adorning the snake’s head are precisely carved and inked. It’s this evolution of artists and schools over time that makes the study of netsuke so challenging and pleasing. It is important to note, both will carry out the essential function of netsuke, the founding principle of which is the intention to be worn, supporting the sagemono.
In 1853 a big shift occurred in Japan after American Commodore Matthew Perry led a mission to establish trade between Japan and America. Since 1635, Japan had been in self-imposed isolation from the outside world, with only very limited and controlled trade with the Dutch and Chinese. The Dutch were located on a man-made island called Dejima, in the Nagasaki harbour, and Chinese traders were limited to a small district in the city of Nagasaki. A Portuguese trading mission had ended rather bloodily by the turn of the decade. The only other official foreign trade was with Korea and the Ryukyu Islands, carried out on islands to the southwest of Japan's main islands.
The mission led by Matthew Perry was the catalyst that led to the opening of Japan to the West. Japanese citizens embraced Western tastes and clothing. The demise of the traditional Japanese kimono and influx of Western collectors led to a shift in style of netsuke carving. Carvings became more intricate and more okimono-like (an okimono is an ornament for display an object d'art), less functional, with delicate protrusions such as ears that would break if worn. The rules that had previously governed what made a ‘good’ and functional netsuke gave way to a carving style that would appeal to the Western collector. During this period, many netsuke were mass-produced and were often of inferior quality, falling well short of the standards of the 18th and 19th century masters.
Two rabbits, Meiji, late 19th/20th Century.
This is not to say that no masterpieces were created throughout the later period of netsuke production. Many masters, such as Kokusai from Asakusa, Ohara Mitsuhiro of Osaka, and later the SO school carvers, to name a few, produced stunning netsuke at this time. Even today we are blessed with exceptional netsuke-shi (netsuke-shi is the term for a carver of Netsuke) from around the world, where fine artworks worthy of the netsuke name are produced.
It is this fluidity that I find so appealing in netsuke. It’s hard to use terms like ‘always’ or ‘never’, and stick rigidly to an opinion on how things were, partly because so little is known about 18th and 19th century netsuke-shi, and partly because someone will come along with an exception that proves you wrong.
My advice to you as a new collector is to subscribe to established auction houses, such as Bonhams, Lempertz, and Galerie Zacke, who produce wonderful catalogues full of genuine netsuke offered at a range of price estimates. In your first years of collecting, spend more on books about netsuke than you do on netsuke themselves.
It is a passion that will allow you to meet some amazing people, forge great friendships and, with dedicated study and patience, can be enjoyed even on a modest budget.