One skill a seasoned dealer or collector should acquire is to store observed details in his or her memory for future reference. I learnt this lesson well in the late 1980s as a dealer in mostly British pictures, where on at least three occasions I followed a hunch, met with scepticism from the appointed experts and was later vindicated, to my infinite gratification, and profit.
As a dealer in netsuke I cover a vast gamut of styles. I derive the most pleasure from buying something that I like, sometimes against market trends, and finding that someone else shares my enthusiasm; it only needs one. Inevitably from time to time I find myself handling something which I know is not my own taste, but will appeal to someone else. Frankly I find that less gratifying, but a sale is a sale and helps to keep the wolf from the door.
Some of my clients will already know my penchant for early inro, often well worn and beaten up, going against the taste of the majority of Inro collectors for the pristine, which is not really my thing. Fewer may know of my equal liking for early netsuke. I was particularly pleased by the arrival of three early Netsuke in a recent group purchase made abroad on the basis of photographs only. It is hard to put my finger on exactly what it is that appeals. There is a slightly naïve simplicity which is attractive, and perhaps the wear adds a touch of historic romance. Whatever, it is, I will not try to describe it here, but leave two of the Netsuke to speak for themselves.
The netsuke that excited me the most was the third, for reasons which had already been evident from the seller’s photographs. Late in 2010 I was fortunate to buy from a London dealer friend a very large and heavy marine ivory netsuke of a crab and turtle on a pile of shells. I was intrigued by it because only a few months previously I had bought a more modest netsuke of shells, which was clearly by the same carver, identifiable by the distinctive way in which he carved the scallop shell. Since then I have seen no end of unsigned netsuke by this same carver, always recognisable by the scallop.
Now I must digress somewhat. Those who have followed netsuke for a while will be familiar with models of mermaids and mermen with rather stubby bodies and similar flat faces, regardless of gender. I think it is commonly agreed that these are by the same hand as the somewhat more elegant karyobinga with heads and faces in the same style as those of the mermaids and mermen, their bodies rather more graceful thanks to their trailing tails similar to the ho-o bird (phoenix).
What I have discovered, thanks to this very worn and battered new acquisition, is that the shells, merpeople and karyobinga are by one and the same hand, or workshop. Now all we need to work out is who that carver was.