Netsuke is a form of miniature sculpture particular to Japan and one with no counterpart in Western culture. The proper pronounciation for netsuke is "net-skay," and the term is never pluralized. Chatelaine's Antiques Collectibles Appraisals

 

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Chatelaine's Antiques & Appraisals Magazine > Asian Works of Art > Feature: Japanese Netsuke
 


Japanese Era Names

 
JAPANESE NETSUKE: 

 MINIATURE SCULPTURE AT ITS FINEST

Soft metal netsuke
Soft metal netsuke cast
in the form of a match-lock pistol,
Meiji Period, sold at auction in 1997 for $1,725
including premium.
Netsuke is a form of miniature sculpture particular to Japan and one with no counterpart in Western culture. The proper pronounciation for netsuke is "net-skay," and the term is never pluralized.

Netsuke exist because the kimono is constructed without pockets. In place of a pocket, the Japanese used an inro (sectioned box) to hold items such as money, tobacco, and writing implements. The inro with a cord drawn from the top under the kimono's sash was counterbalanced by a netsuke. This prevented the inro and cord from slipping through the sash.

Netsuke are usually carved from ivory or wood, but some are made of stag antler, bamboo, porcelain, metal, or other rare materials. Generally between one to two inches high, netsuke differ from purely decorative forms of sculpture in that their practical use imposes strict limitations on design.

Netsuke must be compact and free of projections that might catch on kimono sleeves. They must be durable enough to withstand wear from daily use and strong enough to support the full weight of the inro. Furthermore, a netsuke's design must not be spoiled by the holes necessary for insertion of its cord.


Ivory netsuke
Ivory netsuke
of an Immortal,
Edo Period, sold at
auction in 1997 for $1,150 including premium.
MORE THAN FUNCTIONAL
The height of netsuke carving occurred during the Tokugawa period (1615-1868) when Japan was cut off from the rest of the world except for a nominal Dutch and Chinese trading post at Nagasaki.

This isolation is responsible for one of the most fascinating aspects of netsuke they were produced by and for Japanese, solely to their taste and subject matter. Netsuke subjects, style, and treatment express the character of the Japanese people. The introduction of Western dress to Japan brought about the demise of netsuke as a functional object. But in some respects they are more alive today than ever before.

THRIVING COLLECTORS MARKET

Netsuke collectors are extremely active. Scholarly books, publications, and netsuke study societies abound. The earliest collections of netsuke were formed in Europe and are well documented.

American collectors have also made their mark in the field. Almost any antiques fair will have netsuke for sale. It is possible to buy netsuke from fine collectors for a few hundred dollars. Netsuke from important collections come up for sale at auction regularly, and it is still possible to buy some of the finest examples for a fraction of what masterpieces in other fields would cost.

As netsuke were carved in great quantity, it is also possible (with a bit of knowledge and luck) to find undiscovered treasures. Novice collectors should educate themselves through reading and handling as many netsuke as they can find.


Ivory netsuke
Ivory netsuke of a pile of fish,
Edo Period, sold at auction in 1997 for $4,025 including premium.
HOW TO START COLLECTING
A good book of signatures is essential for beginning collectors. Although netsuke carvers were often renowned for their renditions of a certain form, it was not uncommon for a student to sign his master's name as a way of relating his creation back to the master's work. This makes questions of authenticity extremely difficult.

In addition, some of the finest examples of netsuke are unsigned, thereby rendering authentication impossible and prices lower.

Beginners can start a collection by focusing on: specific subjects such as frogs, oxen, or erotica;
an appealing medium boxwood, metal, or ivory are examples;
or certain forms such as the kagamibuta (in the shape of a bowl and disc) or manju (shaped like rice cakes).

There's no better way to begin collecting than by handling the pieces yourself and talking with collectors and dealers. If you're interested in expanding into a new field take a look at the listings at eBay!

 



Netsuke: Japanese Life and Legend in Miniature by Edwin Symmes

The Ultimate Netsuke Bibliography:
An Annotated Guide to Miniature Japanese Carvings
by Norman Sandfield

Japanese Netsuke in Oxford by Oliver Impey

Netsuke, Familiar and Unfamiliar: New Principles for Collecting
by Raymond Bushell

Netsuke
by Patrizia Jirka-Schmitz

Netsuke:
The Japanese Art of Miniature Carving

by Matthew Welch, Sharen Chappel

Japanese Treasures: The Art of Netsuke Carving in the Toledo Museum of Art
by Carolyn Putney

Inro to Netsuke
by Tokyo National Museum

Netsuke: Fantasy and Reality in Japanese Miniature Sculpture
by Joe Earle