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Small form antique art

Of all the items you may envisage when talking about collectible antiques, Japanese netsuke may not initially come to mind, if at all. However, in reality, these precision hand-sculpted accessories that are less than 3 inches in size, are the foremost Japanese collectible.

While initially a men’s fashion piece at its height some 250 years ago — give or take — they have transcended their original purpose and are now highly sought after as items representing great skill and expression. There are now collectors all across the world, both public and private, and now almost everyone can start a collection themselves. 

Lets discover a bit about what Japanese netsuke really are as well as the collectability of these minature pieces of art.

A solution to a problem

Understanding netsuke requires us to look back to a time where the kimono was the height of fashion in Japanese society, as the two are inextricably linked. 

Although the kimono made an appearance much earlier, the height of its wearing was seen during the peaceful Edo era. In fact, both women and men wore variations of the kimono. However there are some differences in design according to gender. 

This is where the problem starts.

The kimono was a type of garment that had no pockets. So how do you carry personal items? For women, the answer was in their sewn sleeves (literally) which could be used as a pocket for the variety of small items they wished to carry. The men’s kimono, being different in design, couldn’t use this solution. Instead they decided to hang items from their kimono’s sash (known as an Obi) and in order to hold a desired item in place, a type of fastener was used. This is what is known as a netsuke.

Rolled mouse Japanese netsuke
Metropolitan Museum of Art

How Japanese netsuke developed

Due to them being a purely functional solution for male specific kimonos, the first netsuke will likely have been nothing more than pieces of smoothed wood. 

This is a key requirement for Japanese netsuke. It had to be smooth to prevent any possibility of cutting into the delicate fabric of a kimono.

However, being a time of greater peace and prosperity, it wasn’t long before Japanese netsuke developed some artistry. The samurai classes of Japan used netsuke as a form of personal expression in an otherwise strict code of conduct implemented by the ruling shogunate. In time, netsuke took the form of an inconceivable number of ideas; from animals to people, to fictional creatures, or entire miniature scenes and dioramas in their own right. 

The real change of Japanese netsuke from being merely a functional accessory to a sought after collectible came at the dawn of the Meiji era (1868 – 1912) after Japan was forced to reopen to the world by the arrival of America. 

With an influx of western customs into the country, including clothes, the netsuke became obsolete. However whilst the Japanese dropped netsuke, many westerners became fascinated with them (among other things) and saw them as a type of curio. Due to this, netsuke continued to be made purely with the intention to be sold to the inquisitive new arrivals and to the overseas market. Thus netsuke became a collectible over anything else.

woman and mouse netsuke
Historical Museum of Bern, CC BY-SA 2.0 FR

Collectability today

What makes Japanese netsuke collectible is the sheer amount of variety in terms of design as well as the exquisite detail carved into each piece. The appreciation of which has allowed this now dedicated art form to continue to be shared. 

There are currently numerous museums across the globe that house substantial netsuke collections. Here in the UK, The British museum and Bristol museum have some of the largest collections that run into the hundreds but plenty of other institutions are home to smaller displays, such as the museum of Scotland and the Ashmolean in Oxford.

While it’s true that the most valuable netsuke are those that were produced in Japan at the height of their usage, expert artists and carvers from across the world are now out there producing their own — with the same amount of dedication and ability found in those that inspired them.

Starting a netsuke collection then can now be a totally viable and fulfilling endeavour as a personal collector. However, like starting any collection; there are things to be aware of if you’re looking to buy Japanese or Japanese-style netsuke.

Netsuke oni mask
Rijksmuseum

Authentic vs inauthentic netsuke antiques

One of the downsides to the popularity of Japanese netsuke is the inevitable production of those intended to look like real antiques. In order to hopefully avoid some of the potential inauthentic netsuke on the market here are some guidelines on some of the things to look out for.

Loopholes

When I say loopholes, I mean literal holes in which cords and such would pass through to fasten the netsuke. Authentic netsuke can be expected to show some signs of use inside of them. Alongside this, inauthentic models often have an outer ring around the loophole. You may also notice that some loopholes may seem to just be in a peculiar position. 

General wear and tear

For the most part, wear and tear is something you can expect to find on some of the older items. Hairline cracks and very slight blemishes are not uncommon (the sort of thing that don’t generally detract too much from the value if they are very small), however these types of marks and such can be imitated. Key things to look out for are cracks that go against the grain of whatever material is used as well as faded colour in small sections which suggests excessive and intentional rubbing. 

Material and colour

Many inauthentic netsuke try to replicate the look of ivory which was one of the most used materials in Edo period production. Real aged netsuke should have an amber colour rather than being near white when new. Along the same lines real Japanese netsuke created using ivory or hardwoods have a weighty feel. 

Don’t be fooled by signatures

With most antiques a signature is usually a good sign and represents a genuine find. However, many netsuke artists forwent signing their pieces back in the Edo period. In spite of this, fraudsters will often put fake signatures on their work in an attempt to sell its credibility. It’s not always the case, but a netsuke without a signature may be more likely authentic than a fake.

Devil is in the detail 

Detail in authentic Japanese netsuke is absolutely everything. Clear well defined edges and features are the hallmark of a real netsuke. Anything that looks even a little sloppy can be almost guaranteed to be fake.

In truth, differentiating between real and inauthentic can sometimes be incredibly difficult. However, carefully checking off points like those above when observing netsuke may help in weeding out the good from the bad.

Japanese netsuke mask
Auckland Museum Collections from Auckland, Aotearoa New Zealand, CC BY 2.0

Where to buy Japanese netsuke UK

This then here is the big question; if you are looking to start collecting netsuke, where do you go to buy some?

There are in fact a number of places you can go to start your own collection depending on what you are after.

If you are looking for genuine antique netsuke in the UK, then there are a number of well-renowned antique dealers and auction houses that regularly sell them. Of course, the thing to bear in mind here is that prices can range from the hundreds into the thousands for such items. A couple of the best include:

There are also many smaller independent antique dealers specialising in netsuke such as:

As previously mentioned there are also modern artists and carvers creating their own netsuke. For example:

Lastly but not least, not all netsuke has to be expensive. If you like the concept and the design of Japanese netsuke but not so much the price, netsuke reproductions may be a good starting point. 

Let me be very clear here. These will most likely be partly made by machine rather than fully handcrafted. However, they can offer a charming and inexpensive entry point into netsuke appreciation that have similar qualities to the real thing.

You can find examples of these in museum gift shops such as:

And some genuine sellers on sites such as Etsy. (I wouldn’t recommend paying much more than £40) 

Snake and turtle Japanese netsuke
Masatami, CC BY-SA 2.0 FR

Conclusion

Japanese netsuke have come a long way since their conception. Where they once merely served as an improvised solution to men’s fashion woes, they are now admired, perhaps even revered, for their artistic qualities. 

These antiques are something to be celebrated. They represent a level of ingenuity in purpose; a level of creativity in design; and a level of skill that surpassed what was necessary, but by doing so, created something spectacular.

Nathan