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2,500 years of Japanese culture: Okimono hawk flies high at Bonhams sale
A fine and rare early-19th-century sword cover with metal fittings (lot 196) is offered with estimates of £35,000-£45,000. Photo: Bonhams.
LONDON.- On 15th May, the Fine Japanese Art sale will take place at Bonhams spectacular new head-quarters on London’s New Bond Street. Bonhams is among the world’s leading auction houses for Japanese art.

The sale includes a wealth of arts and crafts including netsuke (carved sculptural toggles) and inro (miniature interlocking medicine cases); armour; woodblock prints, with a section of erotic subjects; painted folding screens; sculpture in ivory and metal; lacquered works; and ceramics. The lots date from as far back as the Jomon period (c.10,000-c.300BC) right up to the present day Heisei era (1989-present), showcasing more than two millennia of Japanese culture.

A silver okimono (sculptural ornament) of a hawk on a lacquered wood perch (lot 557) is one of the top pieces in the sale, estimated at £30,000-£35,000. The hawk stands on a detachable perch, one wing outstretched as if ready to take flight, each feather intricately engraved with fine lines and the eyes and legs of gleaming gold.

These ingenious sculptures were first made by master armourers at the start of the Edo period (1615-1868) a peaceful time in Japanese history. Craftsmen who had previously met the Samurai's incessant demand for weaponry turned their skills to other pursuits. Japan’s armourers demonstrated their mastery of metalworking by crafting ever more elaborate sculptures that perfectly mimic the natural world.

Other top lots in the sale include a fine and rare display shelf (lot 408) by Uematsu Hobi (1872-1933), one of the leading lacquer artists of his time, which is estimated at £40,000-£50,000. The piece is decorated in gold and black lacquer with flowers of the four seasons, including chrysanthemums, bellflowers, hydrangea and rose of Sharon, and applied throughout with silver fittings engraved with floral sprays.

A fine and rare early-19th-century sword cover with metal fittings (lot 196) is offered with estimates of £35,000-£45,000. The lacquered case is applied with a coiled copper snake and a climbing frog, while the metal fittings are inlaid in gold, silver and copper alloy with butterflies, dragonflies, grasshoppers, wasps and other insects.

Among the highlights of a large group of arms and armour are five imposing full suits of armour, decorated in black lacquer, gold and coloured lace. Their fearsome iron masks with gaping mouths and dark eye sockets are hidden in shadow under the elaborate helmets. An exquisite 19th century suit (lot 214) with navy-blue lacing and a helmet adorned with a large gold hollyhock is estimated to sell for £12,000-£15,000.

A small four-case inro and lacquer netsuke (lot 96) by Shibata Zeshin (1807-1891) is another of the sale highlights, with an estimate of £20,000-£30,000. It is decorated in gold takamaki-e (high-relief lacquering) and inlaid with pewter and mother-of-pearl to show three boats laden with firewood in a sea of formalized waves, a theme relating to a poem by the Buddhist monk, Jakuren (circa 1139-1202): Where has the spring gone? / By the harbour / in the mist / a boat laden with brushwood / drifts away down Uji River.

An outstanding series of 17th century to early 20th century paintings includes a pair of six-fold gold-paper screens (lot 296) by Ikegami Shuho (1874-1944), painted in ink and colours with pine trees and cranes. The pair of screens are offered for sale with an estimate of £10,000-£15,000.

The sale also features a large group of Satsuma ceramics from the Meiji era (1868-1912), many of them from a single private collection. Satsuma was originally manufactured around 1600 in the far south of Japan but international events such as the 1873 Vienna World Exposition vastly increased the international popularity of the extravagantly painted and gilded ware. Soon potters from all over the country were creating their own versions and the word ‘Satsuma’ lost most of its geographical sense. As East-Asian culture was popularised and collectors of Japanese arts and crafts grew increasingly aware of Japanese lore and legend, the canny craftsman-entrepreneurs of Osaka and Kyoto adopted decoration including divine beings and characters from well known myths and legends. In an effort to maintain the connection with the Satsuma domain, some examples are also marked with the distinctive crest of the Shimazu family.

Among the most attractive examples of Satsuma in the sale is a large 'charger (lot 445), painted by Sozan for the Kinkozan Company and valued at £2,000-£3,000. Finely decorated in enamel and gilt, it shows the tragic hero Minamoto no Yoshitsune and his men on the seashore, waiting to board a ship that will take them to exile on Japan’s northern island of Ezo (presnet-day Hokkaido). The design, based on a near-contemporary print by Utagawa Yoshitora (circa 1836-1887), was chosen to appeal to the Western taste for Japanese myth and legend. Another outstanding piece of Satsuma ware (lot 476, estimate £1,500-£2,500) includes a scene featuring the great print-artist Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806) painting a giant phoenix, or hoo on the walls of a house in the pleasure quarters of Edo (present-day Tokyo).

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