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Netsuke literally means "root for fastening" (ne tsuke). Netsuke are toggles worn by Japanese men of the upper and middle classes. These "roots for fastening" developed from a practical object to a coveted collector's item.
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The origin of netsuke is of a rather practical manner. Japanese kimonos had no pockets. The kimono was tied together with a sash or belt, called obi. So everything that you would carry in a pocket was put into a pouch or a box and attached to the sash with strings. The netsuke with two openings for the string to pass, acted as a toggle to prevent the sagemono (everything hanging from the sash) from slipping down from the obi. The channel or hole carved into the netsuke for the passage of the cord is called the himotoshi. If a netsuke has a natural opening for the cord to pass, one speaks of a natural himotoshi.
Far beyond their practical use, they were considered as a status symbol by their owners. Soon netsuke developed from a simple practical object to an impressive piece of art of high standard.
Netsuke were in use from at least the early 17th century to the second half of the 19th century. During the Meiji period the Japanese adopted Western clothing, which made netsuke disappear as an item for daily use by Japanese men.
Netsuke can be categorized into different types.
Netsuke come in a wide variety of different materials. The dominant materials are ivory and wood. Wood is not restricted to a specific tree but comes in a great number of wooden materials - many unknown outside of Japan. Other than ivory and wood, many other materials were used like bone, horn, shell, amber, soapstone or ceramic.
Collectors of netsuke should be familiar with possible import/export and buying restrictions due to legislation for the protection of endangered species. They are different from country to country. Buying and selling antique items with material like ivory within the member states of the European Union is legal and does not require any permits. Exports outside the EU member states require a special permission.
As subjects for a netsuke, the 12 animals of the Asian zodiac were rather popular. But also mythological, heroic and scenes from everyday's life were chosen. Some netsuke show humorous scenes.
Netsuke carvers are called Netsukeshi. The netsuke carvers came from rather different artistic backgrounds. Some were painters or sculptors, others had a more craftsmanship background as mask or puppet makers.
Most netsuke were not signed. Except for paintings or prints, it was not common to sign works of art. Some carvers did. The existence of a signature does not have much influence on the value of a netsuke.
The Soken Kisho, a book from the eighteenth century contains a list of netsuke carvers.
When netsuke were no longer used as a utilitarian by Japanese men, they nevertheless were continued to be produced - for export to the west. These pieces were carved by skilled designers and are by no means of any minor quality.
The development that the netsuke took was comparable to what happened to ukiyo-e printmaking at the beginning of the twentieth century. Ukiyo-e as a print medium for the masses had been replaced by photography. Nevertheless ukiyo-e saw a new renaissance with the shin hanga movement. But these prints were created mainly for export.
Today there are about fifty to hundred professional artists worldwide (Japanese and non-Japanese) who continue to produce netsuke of high standard. A netsuke created by a well known contemporary netsuke artist sells for a four digit dollar price.
At the end of the nineteenth century everything Japanese became en vogue in Europe. Netsuke were sold rather cheaply until the second half of the twentieth century when a rising number of collectors discovered the charm of netsuke.
The Japanese did not even consider netsuke as something worth collecting. Therefore most of the best netsuke are in Western collections outside Japan.
Prices can range from US$100 to US$100,000. Top prices are connected to a few well known artist designers. But in general the existence of a signature does not have much influence on the value of a netsuke piece. Nor does the material. What matters most, is the quality of carving, originality and a charming subject.
Author: Dieter Wanczura
(August 2001, updated November 2009)
The International Netsuke Society is a good starting point for beginners. You find a question and answer section, a glossary, a list of books, a dealer's list and more.
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Thank you! - Dieter and Yorie