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Authentic Plastic Netsuke?

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Postby Fokad » Wed Jul 27, 2011 9:38 am

I am a french newcomer on the INS site and I am looking for informations regarding the piece pictured below. I suppose that it represents Hotei awakening from a long sleep.
My great father found this piece in Japan in 1919. It is 5.5 cm high and apparently made from synthetic material. As there is no drilled hole on the back, this is not a netsuke.
But...., some years ago, I found exactly the same piece on a flea market except that one had two holes on its back. This "netsuke" was no so heavily brown coloured but both pieces obviously came from the same mould.
Did a mass production of netsuke exist in Japan just after WW1?
Were these pieces made from a classical older model?
I thank you in advance


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Postby chonchon » Wed Jul 27, 2011 9:46 am

Welcome to the site Alain. I wish I could speak and write French as well as you write English. :) (My father was born in 1919)

Netsuke, buttons, badges, etc. were moulded from a kind of resin back in the 19th century.

Yes, I guess that they were made from a popular figure that perhaps sold well at shrines throughout Japan, and someone decided to mass produce them.

I hope you enjoy looking around the site. I suspect that you are already attracted to Netsuke... [img:3rt41wag][/img:3rt41wag]

Size is something.

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Postby OldKappa » Wed Jul 27, 2011 12:13 pm

Bienvenu au forum.

Comme Chochon l'a dit il existe des netsuke en celluloïd et aussi en corne pressée depuis le 19ème siècle. Plus rarement des ojime.
Ceux en corne ont tendance a se faire manger par des insectes si laissés a l'abandon. Il faut faire le test de l'aiguille pour déterminer du quel de deux il s'agit.

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Postby chonchon » Wed Jul 27, 2011 1:13 pm

Now there is some French that I can understand. Merci OldKappa! [img:1loixki2][/img:1loixki2]

I studied French for ten years at school, but now Japanese comes out of my mouth. I believe that if I lived in a French-speaking country for a month I would be almost fluent again!

Moi aussi, je dis, "Bienvenu au forum, Alain."

Size is something.

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Postby AFNetsuke » Thu Jul 28, 2011 12:48 am

Alain, welcome to the Forum. Norman Sandfield (our Webmaster) knows a lot about synthetic and resin materials that were used for antique netsuke as far back as 1850 if my memory serves me correctly. You could try to send him a PM or e-mail via this site. He uses "Norman" as his name here if you want to write to him. You might also try him via his website.

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Postby Fokad » Thu Jul 28, 2011 10:58 am

Many thanks for your help and for welcoming me.

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Postby DSW90049 » Thu Jul 28, 2011 11:17 pm

Alain, let me belatedly join in welcoming you to the INS Forum!

You can contact Norman Sandfield through the links on his website, which is listed under the Dealer Tab above. I have seen and handled old, perhaps 100+-year old, resin netsuke, and they can be hard to distinguish from ivory without use of the hot needle test, though it lacks Schreger lines (if you are not sure what these are, run a Search on the term, and it will get you to the threads, or posts, where we discuss them).

Please enjoy your time here and read through some or all of the threads, time permitting. There is an incredible wealth of information in this Forum, and it is made available by some of the most knowledgeable and generous people in this field. Look particularly at the threads on links to museums and other exhibits of collectible netsuke, as well as books to read, if you think you would like to go a bit deeper.

[i:2w453k2i]Interestingly, my Father, who has been gone since 1980, was born in 1920 in Boston. [/i:2w453k2i]

"There is no shortcut to netsuke collecting; it takes time, study and patience. The market is flooded with utterly worthless rubbish. . . . "
Netsukes: Their Makers, Use and Meaning, H. Seymour Trower(1898)~~~~David

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Postby Fokad » Fri Jul 29, 2011 6:18 am

Thank you for the responses.

My little Hoteis (or maybe Darumas) are not ivory. They are positive to the hot needle test. In addition, I have a lovely doctor’s lady I can compare with which shows distinct Schreger lines and different touch feeling (For the story, this doctor’lady was carved in the early 1900s by a japanese artist in France. I bought her during the seventies from a retired asian art dealer the shop of whom had been closed around WWII. Imagine a 300 square meter flat filled with antique lacquered screens, silk rolls and shelves covered with ivory figures, an Alibaba cave you will only see once during your whole life).

I have been interested to know that mass production existed in Japan for such objects back in the 19th century. As a chemist, I would like to identify the heterogeneously tinted resin (celluloid, polyphenolic,..) both figures were made from.


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Postby Norman » Fri Jul 29, 2011 10:46 am

Hello Alain,
Your figure (with or without holes, and many of them do not have the holes drilled) is definitely celluloid (which has been around since the mid 19th century - different dates are given for its creation). You should be able to see fairly obvious mold marks around the sides/edges.
The other material mentioned - pressed horn - is not horn at all, but made of a lactose milk product derivative, and dates to the early 1890s. I think the celluloid pieces (netsuke and ojime) could be from a similar period. There is no documentation of the exactly where or when the celluloid pieces were made but I believe that they were made in China, for export to Japan, based simply on the large percentage of these that I saw in China over three trips there. I will come back later today with some more technical details to satisfy the chemist in you. My confidence is based on tests that I had done in a Chicago area lab decades ago that had also done tests on the Shroud of Turin.
There are many different models in both materials. I have more than 100 "plastic" netsuke in my collection now.
Norman L. Sandfield

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Postby Norman » Fri Jul 29, 2011 11:00 am

While put off until I am really awake what I can do now. Here is the edited version of the original article I wrote for Andon in 1998, with some later notes added at the end.
While I have read of "English Work in Impressed Horn," which appears to be exactly what it says, these netsuke (of Artificial Horn) are molded, and there is no horn or coloring in them.
I hope this makes sense.
Artificial Horn Netsuke
Norman L. Sandfield
Rewritten: November 7, 2006

Sandfield, Norman L. (1945- ). 1998. Letter to the Editor: A Manju Revisited. Andon, #59 (July, 1998): Page 28, 2 black and white illustrations.

Original article:
Sandfield, Norman L. “Letter to the Editor: A Manju Revisited.” Andon, #59. (July, 1998): Page 28, 2 black and white illustrations. "Pressed horn" netsuke are really made from a milk protein. Sandfield TUNB # 0957.

Letter to the editor
A manju revisited

I want to correct information that appeared in a caption in Arendie H. Kempers’ article [‘Once upon a time . . . The story of Endo Morito and Kesa Gozen’ in Andon 56] and in Johan Somerwil’s correction [‘Endo Morito again’ in Andon 58]. Both photograph captions report an incorrect material for the manju depicting Kongara and Seitaka descending among the clouds.
The identification of pressed horn is the one commonly used to describe this material in many netsuke publications. I have also seen it called tortoise shell and rhino horn by different unknowing dealers. However, this manju is not made from horse hooves or pressed horn, but from a little known material introduced in 1885, originally known as ‘artificial horn,’ which was made from crosslinked casein, a milk protein.

This early plastic incorporated no animal parts (such as the assumed horn) or coloring, except for the milk, Rather, the dark coloring was a product of the manufacturing process. The color variation noted by Mr. Somerwil, which I have seen, is probably a result of different batches, and bad mixing, rather than an original and copy. The split manju in his collection has split due to the effect of age on the weakest part of the piece created during the manufacturing process, when the two molds were pressed together. I have several examples in my collection that show signs of potential similar splitting.

I became curious about this artificial horn, erroneously described as pressed horn in most netsuke sources, while researching an article on plastic netsuke. All of this because I have confessed being the owner of ‘The world’s largest (intentional) collection of plastic netsuke and ojime,’ with more than 100 examples, many dating back to the latter third of the 19th century. Andon should be a wonderful forum to begin spreading the correct word regarding this curious material. I discovered the correct information on this material by having one of my netsuke analyzed by Walter C. McCrone Associates (1), an internationally known laboratory in the Chicago area (they did important work on the Shroud of Turin). The result is that the material of which a large number of black molded netsuke are made, are not any animal parts, but the milk itself, in the now obsolete ‘crosslinked casein’ plastic.

These are seen in many variations of square and round manju, as well as several figural shapes, as seen in illustration . . .

As an additional confirmation that these pieces are indeed molded, and not carved from a piece of horn itself, I showed one dealer that the grain he found on one of his manju was going in a top to bottom direction on the front, and from side to side on the reverse. It appears to have been added by some sort of wire brush after the molding process. This was man-made grain, not Mother Nature’s.

If there is any question about whether the piece is molded or not, look for the mold lines around the edges. Often it has been sanded or filed down, but is visible with a closer inspection. Also note that there is very little undercutting, if any, due to the molding process. Many of the himotoshi will have a sharp raised edge where the drilling process melted the material and it was never smoothed out.

Many of these netsuke are not black, as they have been painted or lacquered over, some quite nicely, in at least two different styles: red, and Negoro red and black.

In Bernard Hurtig’s Masterpieces of Netsuke Art: One Thousand Favorites of Leading Collectors (1973), see the clam shell netsuke in illustrations numbers 79 and 79a, from the collection of J. Bauer: “Setsubun scenes. Lacquer. Unsigned. . . . ” This appears, especially with the aid of magnification, to be identical to the illustration of the celluloid clam shell shown here. Some artist took one of the celluloid netsuke and lacquered over it. Does now knowing what is under the lacquer, and how relatively easy this was to make than if it was crafted from wood or ivory, make it more or less valuable? (2)

Finally, I should mention that the other very common 19th century plastic, of which many models of netsuke were made, is celluloid. Various dates for celluloid’s invention and introduction can be found, ranging from 1856 to 1869. “Easily molded and shaped, there are suggestions that celluloid was first made as an ivory replacement.” (3) This identification was confirmed by the same quality laboratory testing that identified the artificial horn. While there is no other information on this material used in netsuke that I know of, I believe that these celluloid netsuke were produced in China, maybe for export to Japan. This is based solely on the relatively large number of these netsuke that I found in various places in China during my three trips there. Many of them do not have a himotoshi drilled in them.

I hope that this will clear up and end the perpetuation of at least one piece of erroneous information in the netsuke field.

Norman L. Sandfield

(1) The McCrone Group. “McCrone Associates' team of scientists use state-of-the-art instrumentation to solve difficult and unique particle identification, materials characterization and analysis problems. Our extensive array of microscopy tools along with the knowledge, experience, technical skills and creative enthusiasm of our staff, provide an unequaled combination of analytical and problem solving capabilities.”

(2) Hurtig, Bernard. Masterpieces of Netsuke Art: One Thousand Favorites of Leading Collectors. 1973, Tokyo, Japan; New York, New York: Published for the International Netsuke Collectors Society by John Weatherhill. 4to, hard cover, deluxe slipcase; 245 pages; 1,091 color illustrations of 1,000 fine netsuke from 20 collections; all actual size with many enlargements. Sandfield TUNB # 1414.


Other articles of relevance or interest, but not discussed above:

Andacht, Sandra, “FYI.” Andon, #24, 1986. 6: Page 86; 1 black and white illustration. Gamma Sennin, moulded (plastic) netsuke after an original by Chogetsu. This article is reprinted from the September-October, 1986, issue of The Orientalia Journal. Sandfield’s TUNB # 0419.

Andacht, Sandra, “FYI”. The Orientalia Journal, 1986. 8 (5, September-October): Pages 4-5; 1 black and white illustration. Regarding models of a polymer/plastic netsuke of a Gamma Sennin signed Chogetsu being sold in New York City. Sandfield’s TUNB # 0420.

Andacht, Sandra, “FYI (For Your Information): Netsuke.” The Orientalia Journal, 1989. 11 (2, June-July-August): Page 7; 1 black and white illustration. Comments on a plastic/polymer copy of a netsuke of a Gamma Sennin by Chogetsu. Letter follows. Sandfield’s TUNB # 0421.

Betensley, Bertha, Plastic, Celluloid, or Ivory, in The National Journal. 1982. Pages 26-27.

Fleischmann's Margarine, Art Miniatures. 1971, 1972, 1973, Westbury, New York; New York, New York: Jocar Products Inc.
##With a box and a 13 page booklet: "The History and Legends of Art Miniatures: The Netsuke of Japan ... Legend ... History ... Folklore ... Custom" accompanying each of 6 sets of 4 different plastic netsuke, each of which, in late 1972 and early 1973, were offered for $1.00 and the end tab from a package of Fleischmann's Margarine. Sandfield’s TUNB # 3998.

Read, C. H. (Charles Hercules ), F.S.A. (1857-1929). “English Work in Impressed Horn.” Some Minor Arts, as Practised in England. New York, MacMillan and Co.; London, Seeley and Co. Ltd.: 1894. Pages 1-2. viii, 82 pages, with black and white illustrations, 12 color and 4 black and white plates.

Charles Hercules Read, Sir, [Keeper;] (1857-1929) a tribute on his retirement from the British Museum and a record of the chief additions to the Department of British and Mediaeval Antiquities and Ethnography during his keepership, 1896-1921.

NOT: Read, Charles Henry, “accountant, auctioneer & superintendent registrar & clerk to board of guardians” (1811-1900?)

Both are associated with the British Museum and are alive on the right possible dates.

“That fertile and ingenious nation of artists, the Japanese, have practiced the art of Charles Henry pressing horn with considerable success, though, it is true, on a small scale. Hundreds of their fantastic netsukes, impressed in dark horn with the endless variety of quaint designs with which we are now so familiar, were thrust upon the market some ten or fifteen years ago [1879-1884]. They were not received with any great enthusiasm by collectors, for it was soon recognised that they were molded, not carved, and therefore existed in duplicate. Not unnaturally they commanded a lower price, and could not compete with their more desirable carved congeners [a person or thing like another in character or action], but they have nevertheless been absorbed into collections, and are now not to be found in any plenty. These were principally the round button-like netsukes, with subjects in relief; but occasionally there could be found also figures moulded in the round, with contorted limbs and grimacing features, examples of moulding as perfect as could be desired.”

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