When looking into purchasing Japanese art, there are numerous possibilities to fit most budgets and interests from classic antiques to more modern pieces.
Naturally, when many consider buying Japanese art, one of the first things that come to mind are antiques. Whilst the definition of the term may vary depending on country, it actually refers to items over one hundred years old, as opposed to vintage which were created over twenty years ago. In terms of Japanese antiques, this would typically refer to works from the Meiji period and earlier.
It should however be noted that many works from the Meiji period (1868-1912) are considered to be export pieces, destined for the tourism trade. This doesn’t necessarily equate to poor quality however as many of these works were intended for the wealthiest of clientele. Some however were admittedly targeting those with a lower budget and can be considerably cruder than many their Edo period equivalents.
Some collectors base themselves on periods and epochs.
There’s a common misconception that everything old was necessarily of far greater quality and artistry. Some pieces were made by farmers or amateurs and are for lack of a better word, crude.
Prices can range from anywhere between about 20$ for some of the plainer or cruder pieces to tens of thousands for the masterpieces attributed to a famous sculptor. Generally, it’s safe to say that you’re unlikely to get a good antique netsuke for less than 100$ unless you’re exceptionally lucky. Anyone being offered a seemingly wonderful sculpture for less should be weary and ensure that they aren’t looking at a modern Chinese piece.
Modern Chinese pieces/replicas
If you go onto Ebay or most other online retailers and search for netsuke, you will find hundreds of examples of pieces made in China. Contrary to what some might read or believe, these are often extremely well carved and pieces of art in their own right. These pieces are however whilst hand carved also mass produced. There are literally hundreds of the same models which can be bought in bulk from China.
These pieces have been produced since the mid-20th century. Almost all of these works are signed but the name means little and is unlikely to actually belong to the sculptor. With some research, they are easily distinguishable from traditionally made pieces, being made uniquely for decorative purposes and in some cases representing subjects which wouldn’t have been depicted by traditional Japanese craftsmen such as kangaroos and dinosaurs.
It’s not really fair to call these fakes, seeing as there is honestly little attempt made to make indistinguishable forgeries. Most people, with a few hours of research and study should be able to tell these pieces apart from genuine antiques.
As charming and skillful as these carvings are, for purists, these are not authentic or netsuke. In fact, they are generally referred to as “Netsuke like objects”.
It should be noted that for the most part, they are sold as “modern netsuke”. In some cases however, some pieces have worked their way into unsuspecting amateurs’ collections and can be generally believed to be authentic antique pieces. As such, it always pays to do a fair amount of research before purchasing. Even a quick google search for similar items will often turn up many results if it is a Chinese modern piece.
Generally, these pieces will sell for around 10-20$, depending on the subject and retailer.
In short, buying such a work is good for decorative purposes and they can be collected and marveled at in their own right however for traditional collectors and most Japanese art enthusiasts, they’re not the real deal.
Modern “artisan/artist” netsuke
Not to be confused with the mass produced Chinese works, these are individually hand crafted and unique pieces. They’re often realized using the same techniques which have been practiced for centuries passed down through the generations.
There are many Japanese sculptors and schools which still practice the art of sculpting netsuke. It goes without saying that these are now purely decorative. It should be noticed that some Westerners who have taught themselves the tools of the ancient trade and whose works are held to the same standard and reverence as some of the Japanese masters.
Price for these works varies immensely depending on the sculptor’s fame, the quality of the piece and time spent crafting it, materials used, etc. These are works of art however and generally it can be said that you should expect to pay as much for one of these pieces as you would for a relatively high quality antique.