Netsuke collecting is popular all throughout the world. Pronounced as “net-ski,” they are not just functional pieces in the traditional Japanese wardrobe as netsuke figures are miniature works of art.
Today, antique netsuke figurines are collector’s items valued for their excellent craftsmanship and historical significance.
First worn during the Edo Period in 17th century Japan, these toggles caught the fancy of European travelers in the 19th century.
At that time, oriental designs were popular in the west. They are collected as miniature figurines as they are just about an inch in height.
Often called netsuke beads, they serve as toggles or purse stoppers, to a string attached to the kimono sash or obi. The kimono does not have pockets so Japanese men and women carry their personal effects inside pouches or small boxes. These small packets are anchored onto the sash by a wood or ivory netsuke.
What to look for in a collectible netsuke?
Wearing fancy jewelry was unheard of in the ancient Japanese culture. Instead, carved netsuke figurines were the mode of personal expression.
• Good craftsmanship in netsuke beads
The quality of netsuke figurines vary as they are widely available throughout Japan and kimono shops all over the world. Netsukes can be made from wood, ivory, shell, bone, metal, and clay. Themes include animals and people. Deities and mythical animals used in netsuke designs were said to ward off evil spirits.
Back in the days of ancient Japan, ivory netsuke figurines were preferred by affluent gentlemen. Finely carved netsuke figurines are works of art by their own right. Netsuke figures range from one to three inches and were painstakingly adorned with details by the maker by hand.
• Practically-designed netsuke carvings
Miniature netsuke is often intricately designed with details. However, a good quality netsuke should not have rough edges or protruding parts that might catch on the wearer’s kimono.
Netsuke holes are punctures where the rope is threaded into. These holes are typically found at the back. Sometimes, the hole is part of the design as they are artistically placed between an animal leg or tail.
• Signed antique Japanese netsuke
Netsuke collectors aim to acquire pieces with an artist’s signature. Well-known carvers were Kiagyokusai Masatsugu, Rio Kawara, to name a few. Rare netsuke dates back from the Edo period or the 17th century.
Value of netsuke figurines
Today, there is still a high demand of these mini Japanese figurines as souvenir items. Contemporary netsuke collectibles, which are mostly made of wood or resin, are merely priced as novelty items at £2-3 per piece. An unsigned netsuke from the 18th century can be pegged between £1,200 to 1,800.
Aesthetics still determine the desirability of these charming kimono toggles. Exquisitely carved figures and rare netsuke made by famous artists are valued at £10,000 to 18,000.
Beware of those sellers marketing their purse stopper beads as “genuine” and “bona fide” as they might just be fakes. Many netsuke forgeries are sold outside Japan, usually in Hong Kong, and in the internet.
They are usually sold cheap from 99 pence. Most of these counterfeits are actually resin and collectors are made to believe they are made of amber or boxwood. Thus, unwary netsuke collectors are often tricked into paying unnecessary insurance costs and postage price.
How to spot a fake netsuke carving?
Authentic ivory netsuke has visible fine lines when closely inspected. It also feels cold and heavy to hold. Real ivory netsuke figures have sepia tints to highlight the design details.
Fake netsuke figurines made of resin do not have the “veins” and patina of the real ivory. Imitation netsuke is often lightweight.
If you have purchased a netsuke which you suspect might be fake, try inserting a heated needle into the netsuke base. Resin netsuke figures will show signs of melting. Netsuke fakes are also poorly rendered in detail. Some don’t even have holes for the cord.