• Know Your Netsuke. ivory netsukeEveryone is intrigued by netsuke. Year after year people come through my shop and ask about them… as well they should! Netsuke are endlessly fascinating, beguiling even, and so extremely collectible.What are those clever little carved ivory sculptures? What were they used for? Where are they from? Are they always made of ivory?

First things first: netsuke is pronounced “net-skeh”, perhaps with just a hint of “net-skee”. The Japanese word comes from the characters “root” and “to attach” and is best defined as a toggle,used as a clothing accessory. Japanese kimono and kosode (a shorter and looser fitting kimono for everyday use) have no pockets; any personal objects like money, medicines, pipes and tobacco, had to be carried in sagemono (small containers) which were hung from the obi (sash) on cords that were prevented from sliding out from under the obi by the carved toggle or button-like netsuke fastened at the end.

Illustration of a netsuke in use: the sagemono is suspended from a netsuke which is caught on the top edge of the obi.

Illustration of a netsuke in use: the sagemono is suspended from a netsuke which is caught on the top edge of the obi.

Lacquered Inro

Lacquered Inro – a highly prized type of sagemono with a series of compartments for carrying small objects

History:Netsukes were exclusively Japanese. Their greatest period of production and popularity was during the Edo Period when Japan was unified under the feudal shogun from 1603 to 1868. Like all great folk art from around the world, these utilitarian objects came to imbue great artistry and craftsmanship, and their infinitely varied design reflected every aspect of Japanese culture, history and folklore. The form of netsuke is limited only by the skilled artist’s imagination. All these factors of age, scarcity, quality, particular artist, style or form, cultural significance and reference, add to making netsuke so desirable to collectors. The fact that they are so small (most are only one to two inches across), and available at so many different price levels, make netsuke the perfect collectible antique. We think netsuke are endlessly fascinating, and try to always have a few choice pieces in stock at the Antiques Depot

Types: Netsukes were made in several broad categories. The most common and popular type is the Katabori or sculptural netsuke depicting three-dimensional figures.

Very old Bone Shishi or Fu Dog netsuke

Very old Bone Shishi or Fu Dog Katabori netsuke

Next in popularity are Men netsuke, miniature carved masks from kabuki and noh theatre. Sashi netsuke are in the form of long and slender sticks, and Anabori are hollowed out objects such as puzzle balls or clam shells with intricate interiors.

Very old ivory Sashi netsuke

Very old ivory Sashi netsuke

Manju are flattened ovoid “stones”, sometimes made in two pieces, and the related Ryusa are carved and pierced like lace (similar to the puzzle balls).

Manju netsuke

Manju netsuke

Ryusa netsuke

Dragonfly Manju Ryusa netsuke

Most clever are the Karakuri or trick netsuke which include moving parts or hidden surprises. The carving is often enhanced with engraving and variously colored pigments, and more rarely inlay with metals or precious materials.

It is the wonderful, clever and evocative subjects that make netsuke so appealing. Japan during the Edo period was adamantly isolated from the outside world, so its culture evolved in a spectacularly unique fashion. As a consequence netsuke provide an intimate reflection upon Japanese life and lore of the time. The artistic expressions give us a glimpse into their domestic life and objects, trades, professions, crafts, food, religion, folklore, and types of people and creatures, both real and imagined. It is fascinating to observe how the chosen subject matter changes from early in the period when Japanese culture was largely influenced by the Chinese, to later in the period when indigenous Japanese motifs prevail.

Materials: The most popular material for crafting netsuke during the Edo and early Meiji periods was elephant ivory. Unfortunately this proclivity continued through the 20th Century, and many modern reproductions were made in the illegal Hong Kong ivory craft shops even while elephants were being poached below endangered levels. This trade in contraband netsuke has been curtailed to a great extent, but still continues and a collector must be very careful. It is best to seek guidance from established and reputable dealers to judge age and authenticity. It is fortunate (in many ways) that the modern tourist and casual collector trade now relies upon legal bone and fossilized ivory.

The second most popular material used for crafting netsuke is boxwood. This evergreen tree, along with other hardwoods with beautiful grain and warm color, remains popular even among contemporary carvers and collectors. Other less common materials included lacquer, earthenware, woven cane, tagua nuts, walnuts, bamboo, antler, amber, walrus tusk, whale teeth, wild boar tusk, hippopotamus teeth, rhinoceros horn, coral, jet, agate and the extremely rare hornbill “ivory”.

Boxwood netsuke

Boxwood Buddha netsuke

Tagua Nut Dragon netsuke

Tagua Nut Dragon netsuke

As netsuke increased in popularity during the Edo period, the level of artistry rose to breathtaking heights, and the work of particular artists became especially appreciated and sought. Many netsuke are signed, which always adds interest and value to a piece. Changing fashions in the mid-19th Century led to the declining use and eventual disappearance of netsuke, just as the West was becoming aware of these fascinating objects. Interest among Orientalists and art collectors increased and scholarship became vigorous by the 1920s, allowing greater connoisseurship among curators and collectors in the West.

Tobacco pouch with netsuke

Tobacco pouch with netsuke

Although netsuke disappeared from Japanese life, a small number of specialist artists continued their work up to the mid-20th Century. Surprisingly these modern artists catered mostly to Western enthusiasts. Collecting interest in the West has continued and even grown in more recent times, leading to ever higher prices for antique netsuke. There has also been a slight revival of serious artistry in Japan (as opposed to the chop shops of Hong Kong). Netsuke curiously remain fairly unknown to most modern Japanese, although awareness and interest is starting to grow.

Very old bone netsuke

Very old Bone Rat netsuke


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