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Bonhams sell 100% of netsuke in 'white glove' Japanese sale
A fine wood netsuke of a female hare by Toyomasa, sold for £43,250. Photo: Bonhams.

LONDON.- A collection of fifty-eight tiny Japanese netsuke figurines made a rather large £611,213 at Bonhams 13 May sale in London. In auction parlance, it was a ‘white glove sale’ with 100% of the Adrienne Barbanson Collection sold.

With throngs of bidders spilling out of the saleroom, each and every lot was snapped up by the keen crowd. Lot highlights included a fine wood netsuke of three monkeys by Toyomasa which sold for £63,650 and a fine wood netsuke of a female hare also by Toyomasa, sold for £43,250. Also amongst the troop was a rare and an intricately carved ivory netsuke of a hatching turtle by Mitshuiro which made £39,650.

The Japanese are known as masters of miniaturisation, and netsuke, like haiku, bonsai and Zen gardens, allow us to “see the world in a grain of sand.” Netsuke are tiny sculpted toggles that were used to anchor dangling medicine containers (inro) on to the sashes that bound kimono together. The small ornaments were often made of expensive or rare materials and served to display wealth, taste and social status. Carvers drew on varied themes for these accessories such as nature, folklore, mythology, history, erotica and the grotesque.

Adrienne Barbanson (1913–1975) was born into one of Belgium’s most prominent industrial families. Becoming interested in netsuke during the early 1950s, she eventually acquired around 600 pieces. Several pieces from this collection were used to illustrate her 1961 book, Fables in Ivory: Japanese Netsuke and Their Legends. The book was a great success and was one of the 50 most important books of 1961 even before Edmund de Waal’s award-winning memoir about netsuke, The Hare with the Amber Eyes. The sale at Bonhams included netsuke that illustrated Barbanson’s groundbreaking book – some of which had not been seen in public for 30 years.

Suzannah Yip, Director of Japanese art at Bonhams, comments: “We are absolutely thrilled with the fantastic results of the sale. There were competitive bidders from all corners of the globe in the actual saleroom. Netsuke, like diamonds, prove that some of the most desirable things come in small packages.”

The symbolism that these carvings carry in Japanese legend explains their particular success. In countless Japanese folk tales the monkey displays cunning and wisdom. When the dragon king of the sea became ill, it fell to a jellyfish, which in those days walked around on four legs, to find a live monkey liver for the cure. On being lured to the sea shore, the clever monkey soon realized his fate and fooled the jellyfish back to the forest with promise of five livers that he had left hanging on a tree. When the monkey escaped, the jellyfish was punished by removal of his feet and all the bones in his body.

The hare similarly has an important place in superstition. It is said that long ago the chief gods came to the house of a monkey, a fox and a hare asking for food. The monkey brought him fruits, the fox presented a fish, but the hare had nothing to offer. Tormented, the hare threw himself on the fire as a sacrifice, offering his body as food to the gods. The gods placed the remains of the hare on the face of the moon as an example of his sacrifice and it is still believed today that the markings on the moon portray a hare.

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