Ivory netsuke

Views of an ivory netsuke of the monkey king Songoku by Matsushita Otoman which sold for €1m (£860,000) at Bonhams Cornette de Saint Cyr. Otoman worked close to the trading port of Nagasaki. A collection of his works is known to have been taken to Holland by the German physician and botanist, Philipp Franz von Siebold (1796-1866), who resided in Nagasaki from 1823-29.

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The diminutive Edo period ivory carving by Matsushita Otoman was sold for €1m as part of a low-key sale held by Bonhams Cornette de Saint Cyr in Paris on June 15.

The sale, comprising ivory netsuke and sagemono from the collection of Guy de Lasteyrie, followed on from a sale of wood netsuke from the same source.

De Lasteyrie, a member of the Lasteyrie du Saillant family, is considered among the leading French collectors of netsuke. The 181 wood carvings were offered under the title Myth, Mirth and Magic: Important Netsuke and Sagemono from the Guy de Lasteyrie with 78% sold for a total of €1.2m on the morning of June 15.

Quietly does it

However, with much less fanfare, the auction house conducted a second public auction of 36 elephant ivory netsuke during the afternoon of the same day.

This was not breaking any rules (it remains legal to sell and export ‘worked’ antique ivory in the EU) and all appropriate licences were obtained.

But, given the international sensitivities that now surround the material, this sale was conducted with relatively little exposure. It was not available to view online and only Paris-based staff were involved in the sale.

Accordingly, some of those who turned up to view the ‘woods’ had been surprised to learn that some well-known and much-admired ivories were also coming under the hammer. The sale proved a far more lucrative event than anticipated. Lot 192 was a figure of the monkey king Songoku signed by the carver Matsushita Otoman who worked in his home city of Hakata in Kyushu in the second quarter of the 19th century.

The carving is perhaps Otoman’s best-known work. Formerly in the collections of Harry Seymour Trower and Robert and Shirlee Guggenheim, it was sold by the late UK dealer Barry Davies to de Lasteyrie in 1991.

Dealer Rosemary Bandini included the piece in a loan exhibition she curated for the International Netsuke Society convention held in London in 2012 and pictured it on the front of cover of the catalogue.

Fierce competition

It was modestly estimated at €30,000-35,000 but few could have predicted the contest between two collectors, one bidding in the room through an agent, the other on the phone. With both reluctant to let go, bidding climbed to €1m (£860,000) – a price that passed €1.25m (£1.08m) once the buyer’s premium was added.

That sum was a multiple of the previous high for a netsuke, the $350,000/£287,000 ($441,300 including premium) bid for an 18th century Kyoto wood carving of the mythical kirin – half man, half scaly beast – riding on a wispy cloud. That was part of the 61-lot sale of netsuke from the Joseph and Elena Kurstin collection offered at Bonhams New York last December. Back in 2011, when the rules surrounding the sale of antique ivory in the UK and the US were different, an ivory shishi took £210,000 during the Harriet Szechenyi collection sale held by Bonhams in London.

Wood netsuke

Leading the ‘woods’ in the Guy de Lasteyrie collection sale was this carving of a Chinese horseman signed by the late 18th century Kyoto artist Hoshin. It had previously been part of two well-known early netsuke collections – that of Walter Lionel Behrens of Manchester (published in 1912) and the Paul Corbin collection (published in Paris in 1926). Last sold at the Drouot in 1983, it had been purchased by de Lasteyrie from dealer Robert Fleischel in 1991. Guided at up to €25,000, it took €100,000 (£86,000).

As a general rule, the major auction houses have shied away from offering solid ivory works of art since the imposition of new laws in the US and the UK.

However, exceptions have been made. The exemption for works of ‘outstandingly high artistic, cultural and historical value’ was exercised by Christie’s a year ago when a well-documented suite of Murshidabad ivory furniture c.1785 sold in London for £3.1m.