Welcome to our conservation curiosity series, this week we are looking into the world of miniature Japanese sculptures known as netsuke. These unassuming figurines have been known to fetch six figures at auction, but are not often recognised by the untrained eye. 

Japanses Netsuke MontageAbove: a selection of antique netsuke carved in ivory, wood and lacquer

Typically hand carved in wood or ivory, netsuke have been produced for hundreds of years. This article will look into their history, value and care.

If you would like to learn about more unusual and unique conservation curiosities, please take a look at our previous articles on snuff boxes and dummy boards.

What is a netsuke?

Netsuke are small Japanese sculptures, originally designed to decorate traditional clothing accessories. The word netsuke is formed of two Japanese characters:

根 (ne) meaning root 

付 (tsuke) meaning attached

Netsuke were crafted as a type of toggle to open and close a small pouch called an Inro, as kimono robes did not feature pockets. Over time, this functional item became more elaborate and detailed, before finally becoming an established artistic medium. 

Inro netsukeAbove: a selection of ‘Inro’ cases with their original netsuke

Most popular during Japan’s Edo period (1603-1867), netsuke began to decline in use and production during the late 19th century as clothes became less traditional and their functionality was no longer required. However, a growing market for antique netsuke was now established and today they are still much sought after by collectors in Europe, America and Asia. 

Netsuke materialsAbove: netsuke in the shape of a Noh dancer, a goat on a rock, a Noh mask, a circluar bird motif and an octopus, all from the Edo period

There are several collectable genres of netsuke, including:

Katabori-netsuke: the most popular form, a wood or ivory carving in a 1 to 3 inch solid form

Karakuri-netsuke: a netsuke with hidden or special surprise features

Men-netsuke: a netsuke carved in the form of a dramatic ‘Noh’ mask 

NetsukeAbove: netsuke made of carved bone, ivory and porcelain

Anabori-netsuke: a netsuke with a hollow centre

Obi-hasami: an long netsuke with curved ends

Manjū-netsuke: a circular netsuke with relief carving

Ryūsa-netsuke: a circular netsuke with lace-like carving allowing it to be semi see-through

What is the value of netsuke?

Netsuke can be valued by their age, artistic skill and a known artist. The record for a netsuke sale was in December 2022 with a price of $441,300 including premium at Bonhams New York. The 4 inch netsuke was originally estimated at only $15,000-20,000, so it goes to show that the right collector is willing to pay above the odds for these treasured sculptures. 

Netsuke materials

Netsuke may be formed of various historic materials, some may be more unusual than others. As well as hardwood, lacquer, bamboo and clay, netsuke are also traditionally carved from ivory or bone. This may include the use of whale bone or baleen, walrus tusks, or rhinoceros horn. 

Netsuke ivoryAbove: a close up of an ivory and horn netsuke by Masamitsu, late 19th century

Ivory can only be sold in the UK if it is antique, this means it must have been carved before 1947. Due to different international laws, it should not be attempted to sell outside of the UK without professional advice.

Caring for netsuke

As small and sensitive antiques, netsuke should only be displayed in shaded conditions with a controlled environment. The humidity and temperature depend on the exact type of material used. For detailed information on the care and restoration of ivory items, please click here. And for care advice about wooden objects, please see our article here.

Wooden netsukeAbove: wooden netsuke including an owl with two suprise chicks and three monkeys sitting on a fish (Sanbiki Saru), both 19th century

Some of the most valuable netsuke sculptures have a trace amount of original paint on their surface. It is important to maintain the netsuke in a way that will not disturb this important feature. When netsuke is stored away or transported, ensure it is unable to rub against any hard or abrasive surfaces. 

Wooden netsuke may be over taken with mould if it is left in a humid environment following an escape of water or flood. Mould spores should be killed off and removed by a professional conservator to prevent reoccurrence and structural damage to the piece. We recommend speaking to our team as soon as possible to assist with situations such as this.

How can we help?

If you have a japanese netsuke antique or a similar item in need of care, please get in touch with our team for further advice and an obligation-free quote today.

To make contact please email us via [email protected] or call 0207 112 7576

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