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Toledo Museum of Art newly installs one of the largest netsuke collections in North America
The tiny Japanese treasures now fill a gallery especially appointed for their presentation.

TOLEDO, OH.- The Toledo Museum of Art’s collection of more than 500 netsuke—one of two great collections in North America, the other being at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art—is on display in its entirety for the first time.

The tiny Japanese treasures now fill a gallery especially appointed for their presentation. The netsuke (pronounced net-skeh) came to the Museum due to the generosity of several donors over the last 100 years, but are largely credited to one avid collector—Richard Silverman.

A Toledo native, Silverman’s first foray to the Far East was as a soldier in 1956. He became fascinated with the region’s customs and art, and though he returned to Toledo after his stint in the military, his love for Asia led to an eventual 15-year stay in Tokyo.

The art collector adapted to Japan’s famously tight spaces by turning his focus to the tiny, yet meticulously crafted, netsuke.

Invented in the 17th century, netsuke worked as a kind of toggle for hanging sagemono, purse-like containers, from the belt of a kimono. Fashionable men collected these small, carved accessories, which depicted everything from landscapes to people.

“The finest were like miniature Michelangelos,” Silverman said. “I loved them all, from those made in the early 17th to 18th centuries to contemporary works. I traveled the width and length of Japan to sightsee and find more netsuke.”

Silverman amassed a serious collection of netsuke over 40 years, and in the 1980s, he began to donate significant examples to the Toledo Museum of Art. These gifts included more than 200 ceramic netsuke (a relatively rare material for the genre), as well as a selection of 20th-century netsuke made by the Okawa school, a group of carvers first identified by Silverman himself. And just this year, Silverman gave the Museum another group of more than 100 of the miniature sculptures.

“As a donor, Mr. Silverman has really made an impact on the Museum’s collection,” said Director Brian Kennedy. “Because of his generosity we’re able to share with the public one of the most spectacular collections of netsuke in the country. With the reinstallation, visitors can truly appreciate its breadth.”

Netsuke began as simply useful objects but evolved into a fantastically varied artistic medium for Japanese carvers. Scenes, objects and people that depicted everyday life were portrayed in a range of materials, like porcelain, ivory, stag antler and various woods.

The Museum’s netsuke collection dates mostly to Japan’s Edo Period (1615–1868) and is notable for its quality and craftsmanship.

Netsuke were originally an inexpensive commodity, but with the decline of traditional Japanese clothing, these tiny masterpieces rose in value. Today, signed 18th-century ivory or wood netsuke can fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars.

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