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The hawk has landed: Mysterious Japanese sculpture to make 120K at Bonhams
The Japanese call these mysterious sculptures jizai okimono. Photo: Bonhams.

LONDON.- A fully articulated iron sculpture of a hawk by the master Japanese sculptor Itao Shinjiro will be offered at Bonhams New Bond Street sale of Fine Japanese Art on 16th May where it is expected to fetch as much as £120,000.

The Japanese call these mysterious sculptures jizai okimono, and while the earliest known examples appear almost 300 years ago, it is not clear for what purpose they were made, or from where the complicated manufacturing techniques originated.

What is known is that the works were first produced in Japan by the master armourers of the Edo Period (1603-1868). This was the most peaceful time in Japanese history, and the various craftsmen and armourers who had previously met the samurai’s incessant demand for armour and weaponry were forced to turn their skills to other pursuits. This shift saw everyday objects such as tea kettles, boxes and sword guards transformed into works of extraordinary skill and craftsmanship. But still the armourers were unsatisfied, and so, possibly inspired by the Chinese, they began to demonstrate their mastery by constructing ever more elaborate articulated sculptures that perfectly mimicked the natural world.

After the opening of Japan to the west in the nineteenth century, these makers began to work in concert with the government to promote industry, exporting decorative art and participating in domestic and international expositions. It is in this way that these astonishing sculptures found their way to the west. They have been of source of fascination for collectors ever since.

The perfectly formed, naturalistically rendered hawk to be offered at Bonhams can move its body: the limbs and claws are also freely movable and the head can be turned 180 degrees, while the neck, tail and wings can be shortened or stretched out at will, enabling it to imitate the movements of its real-life counterparts.

The lot first appears as the 'Adjustable Iron Statue of Hawk' which won a Silver Medal at the 1894 Spring Exhibition of the Japan Art Association. The admiring English-language commentary, while allowing that articulated animals might have originated in China, boasts 'we have certainly succeeded in making a nobler and more practical use of it than the Chinese ever seem to have thought of. Mr. Itawo [sic], our artist, is a metalworker of no common ability, having a particular aptitude for the kind above mentioned in wrought or hammered iron.’

The sale will also include a wealth of examples of Japanese arts and crafts such as prints, paintings, screens, sculpture, lacquer, netsuke and inro, ceramics, cloisonné enamel, ivory carvings, metalwork, armour, swords and sword fittings.

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