A Netsuke of more than two hundred thousand dollars!

A netsuke (net-skeh) is a miniature sculpture developed in Japan over a period of more than three hundred years. The kimono, the traditional Japanese form of clothing, had no pockets. Men hung bags (inro) from a silk cord on their sash (obi). To prevent the wire from slipping through the “obi”, a small lever is attached to it. That little lever is the “netsuke”.


The netsuke referred to in the title of this article was auctioned at the German auction house Lempertz on November 27, 2004. It was estimated at $60,000 (40,000 Euros) but hammered at 230,000 US dollars (154 000 euros). This unusually large (H 5 2/5″) ivory netsuke of a standing Dutchman holding a dead hare over his shoulder that is attached to a weapon, dating to the late 18th century, is notable for two features: the features somewhat cartoonish facials and fancy clothing, as well as his occupation as a hunter whose bait is indicative of “Southern Barbarian meat eaters”.

Why US$230,000,-?

The extraordinary hammer price of $230,000 for this specific piece can be explained by looking at its history, theme, craftsmanship, condition and of course its rarity. The object made its way over 100 years into famous netsuke collections, already being publicized in 1895 by Japanese art dealer Marcus B. Huish. The representation of the Westerner, especially the Dutchman in Japanese art (in woodcuts and netsuke) is a highly coveted subject. This is due to the Japanese artists’ striking depiction of this “strange” otherworldly people who give the viewer a highly insightful and comical explanation of the meeting of two very different cultures. The unknown creator, it is not signed, of this particular netsuke had to be a master craftsman due to his superb eye for detail and the graceful appearance of him. The Dutchman specific item is not uncommon, but a quality piece in this condition in combination with its age is a very rare find.

More examples

During the last decades there are more examples of prominent prices on netsukes. In May 1990, a netsuke of a horse was hammered for US$260,000 at Sotheby’s auction house in London, and through an antiques dealer at Oriental Treasures and Points West in Honolulu, a netsuke depicting a horse was hammered. “Awabi girl and an octopus” (like the famous “Fisherman’s Wife’s Dream” shunga!) sold for approx. 250,000 US dollars.


Netsuke carvers mostly worked in a narrow area of ‚Äč‚Äčthemes and themes such as scenes from everyday life, animals, erotic encounters (shunga), the signs of the zodiac, or themes with a mythical background. Whatever its subject, netsuke is a very attractive and highly collectible art form and interesting pieces will continue to increase in value.


One of the most referred books among netsuke collectors are ‘The Signature Book of Netsuke’ by Lazarnick and by the same author ‘Netsuke & Inro Artists, and How to Read Their Signatures’. Both have been published in limited editions, the first of 500 copies and the second of 876 copies. These books are must-haves for the serious netsuke collector.

Netsuke Organizations:

International Netsuke Society

International Netsuke Carvers Association

Japan Netsuke Society (Nihon Netsuke Kenkyukai)

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