Japanese Okimono Figures 

By Christopher Proudlove

There are many myths in the world of fine art and antiques. It is my intention to dispel at least some of them. Take Japanese works of art, dating from the Meiji Period, for example. Already, I can see that glazed look coming over your eyes. Read on, this is not some highbrow subject only for scholars and millionaire connoisseurs. Not a bit of it; it's for collectors like you and me.

For a start, the Meiji Period it runs from 1868 to 1912 was named after the title chosen by the emperor and means "enlightened ruler". The period was marked by the restoration of power to the emperor after the fall of the shogunate, by a complete opening to the West, and the adoption of Western technology, science and to a degree, cultural values. It also corresponds in broad terms to our own Victorian Era, and just as purists sneered at Victoriana, so too did they once abhor Japanese works of art from that time. However, in recent years, collectors and museums have reassessed this view. More has been learned about the artists of the period and their schools, making it a fruitful area for the collector.

It was during the Meiji Period that Japan opened her doors to the West for the first time in 200 years. In 1853, the U.S. Navy's Commodore Matthew Perry dropped anchor at the entrance to Tokyo Bay and forced the Japanese to take notice of the outside world. Under threat of a naval bombardment, Japan finally entered into a trade treaty, giving America a virtual monopoly with Japan for many years.

Interestingly, many American trading vessels sailed from New England ports where whaling fleets berthed and whose crews were only too familiar with the marine ivory scrimshaw carvings. Netsuke, consequently, became some of the first articles of trade to be exported, and by the 1870s, netsuke collecting had become popular in the West.

The subsequent demand for Japanese works of art was immediate. The Japanese were quick to capitalize on this, and production of a wide range of decorative arts began on a large scale. The style of these "export" wares differed radically from traditional ones, however. After all, they had to satisfy what Westerners thought Japanese arts to be: warlike Samurai warriors, scenes from the country's mythology, and pretty young courtesans. But the quality of craftsmanship was, generally speaking, of the very highest order.

Metalworkers, for example, who were formerly employed producing swords and fittings for the Samurai, began to fashion decorative pieces, such as figurative sculptures, flower vases and boxes. One area of the market that in my view remains under appreciated is that for ivory figures, known as okimono many of which, particularly those of the Tokyo School, are of exceptionally fine quality. Normally, they depict such subjects as farmers, fishermen, artisans, young women and children at play. Occasionally, one finds particularly striking studies of birds, animals and flowers.

The emergence of okimono is an interesting spin-off from Japan's exposure to Western culture. Once, the country's traditional form of dress was the kimono, and it was worn by both men and women. However, it soon became relegated to ceremonial occasions in favor of more modern fashion. With it went the traditional accessories like the netsuke (pronounced net-skee), the small toggle used to fasten a pouch (such as for tobacco) to the belt of the garment. For years these toggles, usually in wood or ivory, had been skillfully carved by craftsmen who relied on the work to make a living. So with the demise of the kimono, they turned their attention to what was by now a lucrative export market, and netsuke found its way to America and Europe by the shipload.

Market forces decreed that the toggles should be larger, more intricate and elaborate, to the point where they grew so big, they became purely decorative. Thus, carvers of netsuke also began to produce what can only be described as okimono, and there are distinct similarities between the two. Animals and birds, legendary figures, the martial arts, peasants and farmers all feature strongly as the subjects of both categories.

Interestingly, the okimono is a vital element in the inseparable state of everyday life and art in a Japanese house, and it would be given pride of place in an alcove built especially for it called a tokonoma. Most Japanese homes, even those with a Western style, have at least one Japanese-style room, inside which is a tokonoma. Only a few objects are displayed in it on any one occasion, and these must have connections to each other and reflect the season of the year.

Now, take the little fellow in the photo on this page. Standing on his little circular plinth, his inscrutable smile belying the fact that time has caused him to stoop under the weight of his burden. This little Japanese figure of a basket seller is so lifelike; one almost expects him to give you a wave as he marches off across the table top. But he has stood in that pose for perhaps 100 years, every feature of his little face and every detail of his baskets clearly defined. The skill it must have taken to carve such a perfectly detailed little work of art as this should not be dismissed lightly. Come the auction sale, though, and at 380 ($707), I thought he was a cheap buy for someone with the cash to spare.

Some of the most exquisite and most ingenious of all decorative okimono, much of it made specially for export, are the wonderful articulated models of crayfish, dragons, serpents and birds that are found in many Western collections. The best of these are exquisite in workmanship, graceful in design, often strikingly original in conception, and usually naturalistic in ideal. They constitute a phase of art in which Japan has few rivals. However, watch for damage on the delicate constituent parts.

The less well heeled buyer can, with a modicum of knowledge and an eye for quality carving, still find affordable examples that are sure to appreciate in value. But like all collectors' items, condition is of paramount importance. Damage has a dramatic affect on prices. Centrally heated rooms are also bad news for ivory, which does not take kindly to changes in temperature. Display it in a glass cabinet kept humid with a small container of water. And avoid sunlight.

Cotton wool soaked in mentholated spirits is the best way of cleaning dirty ivory, but be sure not to rub too hard or the fine patination that comes with age could be lost forever. Restoration should be carried out only by an expert, and that means it's horrendously expensive.

Exceptionally finely carved figures which, by their nature could not have been carved from a single tusk, were made from several pieces, and it is here that the buyer should be wary. That said, complex okimono involving numerous pieces are somewhat prone to falling apart because the fish glue holding them will perish with age. The problem can look worse than it is, and a loose arm or a head or pieces that make up a base can be reassembled using modern adhesive sparingly.

If loose parts are present, reassembly is perhaps better left to a specialist. More serious is the possibility that missing parts the intricate accessories such as tools, arrows, small boxes and so on have been replaced with something freshly carved. Look for variations in color, grain and texture of the material employed.

The biggest worry facing a newcomer is the abundance of fakes that exist. Clever but crooked souls are doing nicely out of plastic resin copies made from molds which faithfully reproduce not only color and weight, but also the most intricate of carving, and even the cracks that appear only with age. The expert can spot them just by touch: ivory feels cold, plastic does not. The novice should employ an equally simple, though somewhat more drastic test: heat a pin to red hot and give the suspect piece a prod. Plastic melts, ivory does not, so pick a hidden spot such as the base. Failing that, buy only from reputable sources where a guarantee is freely given, either in conditions of business or on paper.

Buyers should also be wary of falling foul of the regulations covering the trade in ivory drawn up by CITES (the Washington Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna). All import, export and re-export of ivory must be authorized through a licensing system. The sale of ivory carved 100 or more years ago remains legal, but legal ivory is indistinguishable from illegal ivory. Always get a written statement from the seller that clearly states the ivory sold is not restricted although it is worth remembering that reputable dealers are not going to risk the considerable fines and effect on their business by handling ivory of doubtful origin.

Christopher Proudlove has a background that combines journalism with press and public relations for Sotheby's and Bonhams, two of the world's three largest fine art auctioneers. Retaining his principal interest in fine art and antiques, Christopher is now a consultant specializing in press, PR and marketing for a number of national and international auctioneers. He lives in North Wales, where Snowdonia meets the sea. Christopher has been writing about antiques and collecting since 1979, and his articles have been published in numerous national and regional newspapers and magazines. He currently writes a weekly newspaper column on collecting and monthly columns for several lifestyle magazines. He is also the publisher of his own website at www.WriteAntiques.com.

An elegant ivory carving of a woman with her two children; 7.5 in.; some old damage; Meiji/Taisho Period; sold for $6,047.

A very fine ivory okimono of a standing Geiko, wearing an elegant kimono, zori, obi, kanzashi and single kushi, holding an ornamental hagoita racket in her right hand and a small flower in her left, 15.75 inches high, with incised signature Dohaku Saku; some age cracks; Meiji Period;
sold for $15,816.

A Meiji Period okimono of a basketseller, $5,800-$7,800.

A very fine and large (18 in.), okimono from the Meiji Period of a mother holding her son above her head, $33,000-$39,000.



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