Japanese art appears in many forms in European and American markets; two of the most popular of these are carvings and ceramics. These are also both highly collectible in the right cases both to a Japanese and a Western market but the value of Japanese ceramics and carvings can often be hard to determine unless you are familiar with Japanese standards of craftsmanship or desirable characteristics.
Valuing Japanese Ceramics
Japanese ceramics, particularly blue and white “china”, are sometimes misconstrued by owners as being from their more widely known neighbour, often for sound reasons. In periods of Chinese isolation, Arita in western Japan took over supply of blue-and-white porcelain to Europe, most notably in the mid-17th century. This meant Arita blue and white adopted many Chinese motifs used in their export wares and, like the Chinese, used European forms such as tankards and narrow-necked jugs. To make matters worse, unlike in China, reign marks were not used until the 19th century, making identifying pieces a job for a trained eye.
‘Satsuma’ ware is some of the best known and most common Japanese pottery found in Europe and the US, recognisable for its distinctive cream colour with enamel and gilding. The majority of export pieces from Satsuma and Kyoto were made from the mid-19th century onwards and while their age is not a great factor in their value, the quality of a piece is. The difference between an intricate, highly-skilled piece of Satsuma commissioned for aristocracy and a mass-produced piece is enormous. Typically, poorer quality pieces will have bold, brash colours and large floral borders popular with a western mass-market. High and low-quality pieces alike may show marks, but the cartouches of high quality pieces will revel far more and certify the piece’s value.
Valuing Japanese Carvings
Japanese carvings broadly fall into two categories: items related to Japanese dress and bamboo carvings. The latter has a thriving tradition in various east-Asian countries, but Japan is particularly well known for its craft of carving wooden masks for religious ceremony or drama. In general bamboo is rarely marked and styles recur over time making it difficult to date. Netsuke, Ojime and inro are small carved items used in traditional Japanese dress – as with Western ‘fashion’, pieces can range from enormously valuable to worthless; the best pieces are highly collectible and should certainly be considered art in their own right. Authentic netsuke sometimes feature a mark but often wear and style are used to approximate age. More important is the form of the piece and any individual charm it might have which could appeal to collectors. Genuine ivory pieces have an intrinsic value to even the least attractive examples; fakes are often made from resin making them lighter weight, warm to the touch, without fault lines and possibly with indications of plastic casting. Fakes in other materials may be harder to identify and an expert opinion should be found.