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Introduction to Modern Souvenir Netsuke and Netsuke-like Objects (NLOs)

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Introduction to Modern Souvenir Netsuke and Netsuke-like Objects (NLOs)

Postby AFNetsuke » Tue Mar 29, 2016 6:25 pm

Most people find their way to this Forum on Modern Tourist Souvenir Netsuke & Netsuke-like Objects because they posted in another area but subsequently found their prized carving was moved by the Moderators to this section. Most importantly, don't be discouraged. A great number of serious netsuke collectors started with the purchase of a piece that better fits the description of an NLO. It takes much study, reading, observing as many authentic netsuke as possible, and very importantly, handling a large number of pieces to eventually develop an "eye and feel" for what we here consider to be collectible netsuke. Even collectible netsuke cover a very broad range of fairly crudely carved utilitarian pieces used in daily life in Old Japan to the top quality netsuke by master carvers that may have been commissioned by a Daimyo (feudal lord) or wealthy merchant and late 19th Century pieces made for export to the Western market but still made by skilled craftsmen and conforming to the style of traditional netsuke.

So what is an NLO? These are almost always non-Japanese (China, Hong Kong) mass produced pieces generally of ivory or wood that primarily date from around the second World War. The "cute little carvings in ivory with two holes" frequently seen in non-specialist antique stores' curio shelves, junk-tique malls, and flea markets are invariably found to be netsuke-like objects. The motifs frequently are animals, especially the Zodiac or mythical ones, or figural pieces showing legends or famous persons from Asian history. The worst of the bunch are overtly pornographic, something infrequently seen in Japanese netsuke which are called Shunga and tend to be much more subtle or simply suggestive such as a diving girl holding an octopus with probing tentacles, or the tall phallic shaped head of Fukurokuju (one of the Gods of Good Fortune), or coy smile of Okame (Goddess of Mirth) in a compromising scene.

NLO group.jpg
1. Collection of Netsuke-like Objects

This first photo is a group of NLOs in a private collection which were bought as antiques. Collections of authentic netsuke do not have the same monotonous carving style, material, or stain we see repeated over and over in modern Hong Kong knock-off pieces. Note the gouged out material around the feet on the otherwise flat bottoms. Compare them to the authentic netsuke you will see in our other Forums.
2. Cabinet of NLOs on sale in Bead Shop

The above photo shows a bead shop cabinet full to the brim with mass produced wood pieces nearly all with identical stain for sale at 20% off. To make them seem more authentic many had bone plaques inlaid for a "signature" and nearby was one of our recommended books on netsuke, Bushell's "Netsuke Handbook", which was not for sale and none of the clerks knew anything other than "they are from Japan and rare". There are a number of quality specialist dealers in netsuke around the world which can be found in our links at Several major and some minor auction houses also have good collectible netsuke and occasionally the rare masterpieces that are eagerly sought out.
NLO (2).jpg
3. Crudely carved animals with minimal detail

Our next photo shows the coarseness of carving technique on the bottoms of two pieces which unfortunately are made of ivory (possibly poached in modern times). The similarity of the general structure of their bottoms and subjects with slight variations should be a clue to revealing these supposed antiques were likely created in the same shop very recently.
4. Rough cut carving with sharp feet

Here we see the underside of an animal with a garish stain applied and feet that show sharp angular cutting of the material without the roundness, detail, and finesse of a real netsuke. The supposed signature is meaningless and made with an electric rotary drill. It's owner's initial question here was whether it was 17th or 18th century which it certainly is not. Ivory was a precious material and would not be wasted to make such a poor carving.

Regarding those holes, called himotoshi, placed in NLOs because netsuke frequently sell for more than other miniature carvings, it is important to note their location. Netsuke have holes or sometimes natural himotoshi (openings integral to the design such as space between arm and body or an animal tail that curls around) through which a cord passes allowing suspension of an object (sagemono) below the sash (obi) around the waist when wearing a kimono or robe. The netsuke sits atop the obi and the location of the holes is important for proper display of the carving. Frequently found in NLOs are holes in the top of the head or other odd placement that would never allow the netsuke to seat properly. Additionally, many of the holes are surrounded by crudely carved flowery designs or rings. Some authentic pieces have himotoshi decoration but it is tastefully done or at times an inlaid ring of more durable material is utilized to prevent wear.
5. Rough edged misplaced himotoshi

As can be seen in this modern carving (tagua nut, not ivory as one might think) the himotoshi edges are very jagged which would abraid the silk cord. Also their placement would cause the piece to stick out feet first from above the obi sash. Not an appropriate way to show off one's netsuke.

Signatures on NLOs are common. Their calligraphic flair gives the object a sense of being an authentic artistic piece to the uneducated observer. However, as seen below, they are frequently simply suggestive of the characters used in Japanese writing or if readable, may represent the shop name or factory where produced. Many beginners will keep asking for signature readings even after being told they have an NLO of no collector value. Reading these "signatures" is of less value than the piece they are scribbled on.
6. Meaningless scribbles mimicking a signature

The great majority of NLOs can be easily recognized by the crudeness of execution in the carving. Much of it is done by modern rotary tools similar to Dremel and dental drills. Superficially some appear to be quite intricately carved but when compared to authentic pieces most pale in comparison. Faces and clothing patterns may be recognized as not looking Japanese, carelessness in finishing the backs or bottoms is common, and unwieldy projections may make the piece non-functional for its intended purpose by being easily broken or caught on clothing. Over the past two decades some pieces have shown increasing skill in carving but these fall more into the category of Fakes.
NLO (12)dremel.JPG
7. Electric rotary tool evidence

In this example a modern rotary drill has been used to do much of the work. Rather than engraved lines made by knife cuts which are more angular sided you can see here in the larger lines the straight walls and flat bottoms. Many NLO signatures are also done with the drill and can be noted by "chatter" marks rather than cleanly cut strokes.
8. "Trick netsuke" with popping eyes
9. "Trick netsuke" reverse

The above piece was purchased in the late 1960's in a New York City antique store which had a number of good pieces of American furniture but also modern chairs and cabinets made to look like Asian antiques and a large assortment of ivory carvings "guaranteed to be antique, original Japanese netsuke" among other Asian "rarities". It is referred to as a trick netsuke due to the eyes that pop out. They were inserted from behind and the drilled holes crudely plugged. There is also a ring around the himotoshi, flowery decoration, and a useless signature which you may find repeated endlessly in slight variations of these NLOs.

Some people have been gifted or inherited netsuke-like carvings but have no real interest in studying or pursuing collecting. If that is the case, please enjoy them for what they are, sentimental items with only emotional value. But for others, remember, if you were attracted to an NLO you may "catch the bug" of netsuke collecting and devote the time to study, buy the reference books, visit museums and specialty dealers needed to develop the skills necessary to continue in this specialized field of Japanese art. Browsing through this Forum to see other non-collectible carvings will show you what to avoid. Studying the rest of the Forums here will lead you on the right path to finding and building your own meaningful collection of authentic netsuke, be they contemporary or antique. Enjoy!

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