Small, Beautiful, and Masterful
by Jessica Kosinski
They say good things come in small packages. Netsuke are tiny figures that prove that point. The little, ornate objects are highly collectible. They are so popular that originals and reproductions can be found in multiple countries in shops, as well as museums. But what are they exactly? How did they develop? What makes them so popular? Let’s take a peek into the world of netsuke collecting to find out.
Like many objects we now take for granted, the netsuke developed out of necessity. That necessity was felt by Japanese men. That is because they wore kimonos. Kimonos are traditional Japanese robes. In Japan, they are still worn by many today.
Early kimonos had one major problem, which was a lack of pockets. Men who wore them needed a way to carry small items. They soon developed a solution called a sagemono, which was a container attached to the kimono. Originally, netsuke were fairly simple fasteners attached to the cords that attached each sagemono to each kimono. They were similar to buttons in that they held the cords in place. In fact, “root fastening” is the translation of the word “netsuke.”
Netsuke Schools of Master Carvers
Netsuke were commonly used in Japan for hundreds of years, but the most important period in terms of their transformation into works of art began in the 18th century and continued into the 19th century. Soon, specific schools of master carvers developed, many of which are still well known today. Netsuke produced by the TSU, Nagoya, and Kyoto schools, for example, are still well-documented today.
Every school produced netsuke as original as finger-prints. Many followed specific themes. For example, Tametaka was the founder of the Nagoya school. Tametaka-carved netsuke often had themes consisting of intertwined animal figures. Later, members of Nagoya school had their own unique styles and themes, including the snake and pumpkin netsuke created by Yoshimasa.
The Morphing of Netsuke from Utilitarian Objects to Works of Art
The morphing of netsuke from utilitarian objects to works of art can be attributed to a combination of events that took place around 1850. One was the phasing out of traditional kimonos. When that occurred, netsuke became less necessary. However, in 1853, Admiral Matthew Perry led an expedition that eventually established trade between Japan and the West. As a result, residents in other parts of the world soon learned about the ornate button-like objects.
As interest in netsuke as works of art developed, methods and designs for producing them changed. For example, before that period most netsuke did not have prominent protruding features. Such features could easily break during use. However, as netsuke became more decorative, designs like animals with protruding ears developed. Looking at such designs can be one way to date certain netsuke today.
Materials Used to Make Netsuke
Today, you can find both antique and modern netsuke made out of many different materials. Some of those materials are used solely in the production of more modern decorative netsuke. Others are associated with early netsuke production or were used for netsuke making in many different eras.
For example, early netsuke were often made out of mammoth ivory long before ivory laws were in place. However, hippopotamus teeth were not used until after ivory laws were in place. Carved hardwoods like boxwoods were also popular in early Japanese netsuke production.
When collecting netsuke, you might enjoy focusing on one particular type of subject matter such as netsuke depicting people. These include known fictional and historical people, as well as depictions of average people of certain periods performing certain tasks, such as fishermen. Netsuke depicting animals are also fun to collect, as are those featuring mythical figures. The best option is to review those and other popular netsuke styles and determine which subject matter appeals to you most. Then you can focus on netsuke that suit your collecting desires.
Collecting netsuke is easy in one sense because they have been produced for centuries and are still produced today. Therefore, there are plenty of them to find. However, figuring out which netsuke were produced in certain eras or distinguishing an original from a reproduction can be a tricky undertaking. If you are concerned with authenticity, the best option is to frequent auction houses or online sales sites with positive reputations. If you care only about collecting netsuke that you consider cute and decorative, regardless of age or monetary value, you can find excellent deals on netsuke in various shops and flea markets. Just be aware that not every netsuke you may see in such venues is an antique.
What Determines Netsuke Value
Netsuke pricing varies from just a few hundred to many hundreds of thousands. Those typically seen at shows and flea markets can run under $100 and are typically the later, even mass-produced items. Authenticity plays the largest role in value along with the skill of the artist. But it is the entire package of the netsuke—age, style, signature, school—that come together for the more expensive examples. For every one created by a master at his peak, there are thousands made before the achievement is reached.