Netsuke red flags

by Rosemary Bandini

A quotation from the American playwright and raconteur, Wilson Mizner, recently made me smile:

“A fellow who is always declaring he is no fool usually has his suspicions”.

It set me to thinking about the thorny problem of assessing works of art and their authorship. The word ‘expert’ is frequently used to describe someone with in-depth knowledge and experience of a particular field – established dealers, collectors and auction house authorities, where the term ‘specialist’ is perhaps a more useful one. Our knowledge evolves constantly (at least it is to be hoped so). Only the most arrogant would claim to know everything, which is why huge court cases sometimes take place when the authenticity of a costly piece is questioned. It behoves us all to be prepared to learn and, if necessary, to change our opinions. Having said that, the advantage of spending many years in a particular sphere and handling and studying countless artifacts, imparts knowledge of certain things and an instinct begins to develop.

Forgeries and reproductions exist in all fields of collecting, some made in admiration, some intended to deceive for financial motives. The obvious candidates for the latter are well known pieces that achieve record prices at auction. Anne Hull-Grundy, a regular contributor of netsuke articles to the Connoisseur magazine remarks in one such entry that she will no longer offer multiple views of her netsuke ‘for fear of forgery’. In the days of the internet – particularly during a global pandemic lockdown, buyers want to be able to see many views of an object and to get as near as possible to the experience to having a piece in hand. So what should they be looking out for?

Speaking in terms of netsuke, the quality of workmanship is readily apparent. Much can be deduced by studying surface, patina and staining. Illogical wear should always raise a red flag. It does not make sense to find wear to the hair and other detailing on an outward facing surface of a netsuke where it would not have rubbed constantly against clothing. Many clues can be found in close comparison of little details: the shape of ears, the definition of paws, hands, fingers, nails for instance. How a carver has used his blade to cut into the material (and needless to say, the tell-tale jumping of a signature engraved with an electric stylus). Studying the way in which a carver uses his blade to recreate an animal’s fur, for instance, can be like reading a signature. A fake usually fails to reproduce the natural flow of a netsuke, the sense of movement. An accomplished copyist, going all-out for maximum impact, might create a pastiche of a great carver’s work, throwing assorted elements of well-documented examples, but in doing so completely missing the essence of the master’s conceptual eye. The greatest carvers have a quality to their work, an element of genius that defies reproduction. A pupil may display a brilliance of his own, but still fails to capture the quirk and soul of his master’s work.

Where it was common for a master craftsman to have apprentices and followers, as they mature they inevitably develop their skills in their own individual way.
Studying the development of a particular craftsman’s work through books, handling opportunities, a battery of magnifying glasses and exchange of ideas and observations helps to develop and focus our eye.

There are a few people who know a lot, but nobody knows it all.

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