Japanese Netsuke Sculptures Highlight at Bonhams Auction

A collection of 58 tiny Japanese netsuke figurines is expected to command big price’s at Bonhams 16 May auction of the Adrienne Barbanson Collection in London. Bonhams achieved a world record for this art form when a single netsuke went for £265,000 at a recent sale.

Netsuke SculptureThe Japanese are known as masters of miniaturization, and netsuke, like haiku, bonsai and Zen gardens, allow us, as the poet William Blake said, to “see the world in a grain of sand.” Netsuke are tiny sculpted toggles, about the size of a grape, that were used to anchor dangling wallets and containers on to the sashes that held kimono closed. The miniscule ornaments were often made of expensive or rare materials and served to display wealth, taste and social status. Carvers drew on varied themes for these accessories such as nature, folklore, mythology, history, erotica and the grotesque. In Edmund de Waal’s award winning memoir about netsuke, The Hare with the Amber Eyes, de Waal describes netsuke as “small, tough explosions of exactitude.”

Adrienne Barbanson (1913–1975) was born into one of Belgium’s most prominent industrial families – her father was a pioneer of European integration and co-founder of the Arbed group, now part of Arcelor Mittal. Barbanson became interested in netsuke during the early 1950s, and eventually acquired around 600 pieces. In 1956, after a thorough study of netsuke and their iconography, Barbanson made her first trip to Japan. During her stay she visited Kyoto and acquired a number of netsuke, several of which she used to illustrate her 1961 book, Fables in Ivory: Japanese Netsuke and Their Legends. The book enjoyed considerable success and was designated by the Association of American Libraries as one of the 50 most important books of 1961. Fables in Ivory narrates a range of Japanese legends, chosen by Barbanson and illustrated with netsuke from her collection as well as others she borrowed from the Musée d’Ennery. The auction at Bonhams New Bond Street saleroom will include many of the netsuke that illustrated this groundbreaking book – some of which have not been seen in public for 30 years.

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