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ANTIQUES

AROUND HOME : Japanese Netsuke

February 05, 1989|SAM BURCHELL

THE NETSUKE IS small (rarely more than one to two inches in diameter) and made of ivory, wood, porcelain, stone, and sometimes from gourds. Many people recognize the charm of these perfectly balanced and exquisitely carved little figures without knowing exactly what their original function was.

Until the end of the 19th Century in Japan, the netsuke was an everyday utilitarian object. It was a sort of clasp, worn on the kimono sash, to which a carrying case ( inro ) was attached by a silken cord--there were no pockets in the traditional Japanese costume. Over the centuries, the artistry of the netsuke became more and more elaborate. By the end of the century, however, most Japanese men opted for Western dress, and the netsuke became no more than a curio.

Variety of subject matter is what gives antique netsukes their charm. Each one is different, and almost anything the human mind is capable of imagining has been sculpted by the often anonymous masters of the art. Animals have always been popular: frogs on a lotus leaf, for example, Mandarin ducks, mice, a fly resting on the tentacle of an octopus. Mythical figures, too, are represented, as well as gods, monsters and phantoms: Kirin, the mythical animal symbolizing virtue and wisdom, and Hotei, the cheerful, often unshaven pot-bellied Japanese god of happiness.

One of the finest examples of all, an ivory Baku, was sold in a 1987 auction at Sotheby's in London. The Baku is a mythological animal that devours bad dreams. It has the body of a lion, the head of a dragon and the tusks of an elephant. Attributed to an 18th-Century Osaka master named Gechu, it--incredibly--brought $110,000, perhaps the highest price ever recorded for the sale of a netsuke.

With the exception of such unusual items, however, antique netsukes can still be purchased at reasonable prices. Don't overlook the Hong Kong reproductions; some are excellent. There are also contemporary artists making netsuke in Japan. But by far the most desirable netsukes are those made in the 18th Century--many signed, many by unknown masters.

Netsuke can be found at I.M. Chait in Santa Monica; Gallery de Thezan in West Los Angeles (with both antique and good contemporary examples); Larchmont Antiques and McMullen's Japanese Antiques in Los Angeles; Collector's Gallery (items on consignment) and Osborne Gallery in Pasadena; Warren Imports in Laguna Beach, and S&F Jackson in San Diego.

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