Standing on his little circular plinth, his inscrutable smile belying the fact that time has caused him to stoop under the weight of his burden, this little Japanese figure of a basket seller is so lifelike, you almost expect him to give you a wave as he marches off across the table top.
But he was carved from ivory and he’s stood in that pose for perhaps 100 years, every feature of his little face and every detail of his baskets clearly defined. The skill it must have taken to carve such a perfectly detailed little work of art as this should not be dismissed lightly.
Come the auction sale, though, and at £380, I thought he was a cheap buy for someone with the cash to spare. However, it seems the market in okimono, the name given to Japanese ivory like this, is relatively new and prices are far from established. Consequently, the less well heeled buyer can, with a modicum of knowledge and an eye for quality carving, still find affordable examples that are sure to appreciate in value.
Purist collectors of Japanese works of art might dismiss okimono as “modern” knickknacks made by the thousand for the export market. And, of course, they’d be right. For more than 200 years, until the mid-19th century, Japan had existed in almost total isolation.
However, in 1853 the Americans, under Commodore Perry, forced the Japanese to take notice of the outside world and permit free trading. For the first time the country became exposed to the West and its cultures.
It was a time of sweeping changes, affecting most aspects of life, even the traditional kimono. Until then, it had been worn by both men and women, but soon the kimono became relegated to ceremonial occasions in favour of more modern Western fashion.
With it went the traditional accessories like the netsuke (pronounced netski) the name given to the small toggle used to tie the belt of the garment. For years these toggles, usually in wood or ivory, had been skilfully carved by craftsmen who relied on the work to make a living. When the fashion died, their livelihood disappeared.
However, they quickly learned that to survive, they had to produce more decorative netsuke that would appeal to Westerners and a lucrative export market soon grew up.
On the whole, the quality of workmanship was excellent. Much was signed by the artist responsible and high quality ivory was employed. A little later, though, and market forces began to play a part.
Mass-production followed quickly, with a consequent loss of quality and, naturally, value. At the same time, customers began to demand more intricate, purely decorative pieces and, thus, carvers of netsuke also began to produce okimono.
There are distinct similarities between the two sets of objects. Figures of warlike Samurai warriors, scenes from mythology and pretty young courtesans, were joined by animals and birds, legendary figures, exponents of the martial arts, peasants and farmers, in fact a whole range illustrating Japanese life and customs all feature strongly as the subjects of both categories.
Like all collectors’ items, condition is of paramount importance. Damage has a dramatic affect on prices. Centrally heated rooms are bad news for ivory which does not take kindly to changes in temperature. Display it in a glass cabinet kept humid with a small container of water. And avoid sunlight.
Cotton wool soaked in methylated spirits is the best way of cleaning dirty ivory, but be sure not to rub too hard or the fine patination that comes with age could be lost forever.
Restoration should be carried out only by an expert and that means it’s horrendously expensive. That said, complex okimono involving numerous pieces are somewhat prone to falling apart because the fish glue holding them will perish with age. The problem looks worse than it is and pieces can be reassembled using modern adhesive.
Biggest problem facing a newcomer is the abundance of fakes that exist. Clever but crooked souls are doing nicely out of plastic resin copies made from moulds which faithfully reproduce not only colour and weight, but also the most intricate of carving and even the cracks that appear only with age.
The expert can spot them just by touch: ivory feels cold, plastic does not. The novice should employ an equally simple, though somewhat more drastic test: heat a pin to red hot and give the suspect piece a prod. Plastic melts, ivory does not, so pick a hidden spot such as the base.
Failing that, buy only from reputable sources where a guarantee is freely given, either in conditions of business or on paper.
Pictures show, top: A Meiji period (1868-1912 or roughly similar to our own Victorian) okimono of a basket seller. It’s worth £300-400
Below, left to right:
A Japanese ivory figure of a young woman with a flower in her hair and holding a pair of scissors. She has suffered slight damage to her right hand and the cord she should be holding is missing, reducing her value to £150-200
A finely carved okimono figure of a vegetable seller. Note the intricate detail of the produce in his basket. He’s worth £250-350
An ivory figure of a young woman holding a lotus flower. The frills and folds of her dress are particularly well modelled. She’s worth £400-600