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Buying and Enjoying Japanese Porcelain & Historic Items; A Collector’s Take

by David Pike (02/18/11).

Andy Aigner, a collector of Japanese porcelain and other items, started his collection with this set.

Are you a collector or are you in an accumulating phase? I interviewed Andreas “Andy” Aigner, a program manager for a telecommunications company who lived in Japan in early 2007 and early 2009 for six-month stints, for his take on collecting porcelain.

David Pike: Why do you collect? What does ‘the passion of collecting’ mean to you?

Andy Aigner: There are many different aspects to this: Trying to beat the professionals at their game (finding nice pieces that everyone else has overlooked); simply owning some beautiful items and being able to look at them and touch them on a daily basis; and last, but certainly not least, the “window into history” that these pieces afford me. I am utterly fascinated by the Japanese screens and scroll paintings depicting scenes of both court and everyday life in historic Japan and could look at them for hours and hours—unfortunately I don’t own any of them.

David Pike: When did you start collecting?

Andy Aigner: In July 2003. About half a year later I sold my first piece on the Internet, and now I am regularly selling on two Internet sites, as well as once a month at a small antiques fair in Southern England.

David Pike: How did you become interested in collecting?

Andy Aigner: I spotted a Meiji Satsuma tea set with rakan and dragon design in an English antique shop and it intrigued me because I thought the style was on the one hand very unusual (I had never seen anything similar before) and on the other quite un-Japanese (now, of course, I know that this was a classic example of export ware). The set was marked (“Choshuzan”) and with the help of my wife (who is Japanese) I started doing research on the Internet. Simultaneously, I realized how many antique fairs there were in England each weekend, and we started with those in our immediate neighborhood but soon expanded our reach.

A Kanjincho Satsuma piece.

The other side of the Kanjincho Satsuma piece.

David Pike: What is your philosophy for collecting?

Andy Aigner: Not much of a philosophy, I have to admit: Anything Japanese from the 1920s or older that appeals to me (see also “Philosophy for buying” and “Best pieces”). However, my “standards” have gone up considerably since I started, and will most probably continue to do so.

David Pike: Philosophy for buying?

Andy Aigner: Anything that fulfills a minimum two of three criteria: originality, quality and condition, does not totally bomb in the third one and, of course, is reasonably priced. Of the three criteria stated above, originality is certainly the one hardest to come by. Nowadays, when I buy, 80 percent of the pieces are going to be sold later on, but I will hardly ever knowingly buy anything that I wouldn’t like to keep in my collection at least for a year or two.

David Pike: What are your main interests?

Andy Aigner: As far as collecting is concerned, mainly porcelain chawan (Taisho or older) and other porcelain items that are 200 or more years old.

David Pike: Why are you less interested in Chinese work and more so in Japanese work?

Andy Aigner: I have for a long time been fascinated by the Japanese and their culture; in my (admittedly very personal) view, the better Japanese pieces tend to be more subtle than their Chinese counterparts. Again, I am talking about pieces in the middle range of affordability. Of course, I am aware that there are some absolutely breathtaking Imperial Chinese pieces, but you need a bottomless wallet if you want to start a collection of these. In the end it comes down to personal taste—many Japanese pieces touch me in a way that Chinese items don’t. Another issue is fakes: You need a lot of experience if you want to buy Chinese antiques because the fakers have become frighteningly good. With Japanese pieces, you have less to worry because at the current prices they are just not worthwhile to fake.

David Pike: Do you prefer Japanese work made for the domestic market or Japanese work made for the European market?

Andy Aigner: With porcelain I do prefer the relative simplicity of the domestic pieces (although ceramic pieces like the ones for the tea ceremony are just too austere for me), but I do admire the enormous technical skill achieved during the Meiji and Taisho eras. European porcelain hardly interests me at all, which means that among the later Japanese pieces, I prefer the ones that still retain a distinctive Japanese flavor.

David Pike: How many pieces do you have?

One of Andy's best pieces.

Another of of Andy's best pieces.

Andy Aigner: Chawan: About 200 different ones; Edo chuki and older: Another 150 pieces. Other pieces (including lacquerware, cloisonné, etc.), around 450. And these are only the ones that I intend to keep.

David Pike: Are you the type of collector that buys from a sense of liking a piece or from the perspective of someone trying to fill in a spot in their collection? From the gut or from the head?

Andy Aigner: I try to combine both, but I think usually the gut prevails.

David Pike: Do you try to have a complete, representative collection? That is to say, do you think in terms of filling in areas that may be under-represented if taking a survey-type look at the field you are interested in and your collection?

Andy Aigner: Not really, because in the two areas listed above, it would not be possible to ever give a meaningful definition of “complete.”

David Pike: You like late Edo through Meiji pieces. Is there any reason for that time period?

Andy Aigner: Actually, my favorite period is about 1750-1830: On the one hand, you can find pieces of very high quality and originality and, on the other, you can still afford them, unlike most of the Genroku-era pieces

David Pike: What do you think were the biggest challenges you faced as a beginning collector? That is to say after you decided to “collect?”

Andy Aigner: The lack of good reference material (books) on Japanese porcelain. On top of it, the few books which you can find are almost all written in Japanese

David Pike: As a collector who has considerable experience, what are your biggest challenges now?

A catalog of kimono designs (more than a hundred) from the turn of the 19th/20th century.

Fabric swatches from the kimono catalog.

Andy Aigner: To find interesting pieces that are “different.” Also, I have the feeling that the supply of good Japanese pieces at reasonable prices has been decreasing considerably for the last years.

David Pike: Do you still make mistakes in purchases?

Andy Aigner: Yes. The Chinese forgers are getting better and better.

David Pike: Hindsight is 20/20. What would you do different if you were to start over?

Andy Aigner: I would have started 20 years earlier.

David Pike: How often on average do you purchase?

Andy Aigner: On an average, about once every two weeks.

David Pike: How does what is available in Europe compare to what is available in Japan? Prices, type of work?

Andy Aigner: In general, there is fairly little overlap between things available in Europe (which for me means mostly England) and in Japan. And the split is very much along the lines of export vs. domestic consumption.

• Kutani and Satsuma: A few simple pieces in Japan, almost everything else in Europe;
• Imari: Export pieces, usually from the 1880s or later and of lesser quality in Europe; late Edo and older mostly in Japan;
• Fukagawa/Koransha: Available in both Japan and Europe. This may be due to the fact that these wares have been produced both for the Japanese market and for export;
• Kakiemon: Surprisingly, you can occasionally find reasonably priced Kakiemon pieces both in Europe and Japan;
• Lacquer: Almost no good (undamaged) pieces available in Europe, except at the very, very high end;
• Cloisonné: This is one of the few exceptions where you can find interesting pieces both in Japan and Europe;
• Dolls: Mostly Japan.

One of the latest pieces added to Andy's colleciton.

Another recent addition to the collection.

One more thing: If I say that Satsuma export pieces are not available in Japan, this is a simplification. They can be found at most major antiques fairs, but at absolutely astronomical prices. Just the fact that a piece has been to Europe or the U.S. and subsequently “repatriated” (if I remember correctly, they call it “satogaeri”) seems to quadruple the price. I have actually had instances where a Japanese customer bought a piece from me on eBay and on my next visit to Japan I found this piece offered at an antiques fair at a price that I would never have dared to ask.

David Pike: With about 1,000 pieces at your house, how do you keep things in order? How do you display them?

Andy Aigner: I was very lucky. When I had only about 20 items I started taking pictures of them all and also set up an Excel file with the important data (like month of purchase, dimensions, weight, price, faults, etc.). This means now, more than seven years later, I have the complete documentation (including pictures) of all the pieces I ever owned, however briefly. As for keeping them in order, each item has a small numbered piece of Post-It attached to it; the number corresponds to the relevant line in the above Excel file. And with a few exceptions, they are all in various glass-fronted cupboards. But more than once a week I just take out some of them to “play,” i.e. handle and admire them.

David Pike: Are tomobako important to you? Tomobako are the signed boxes that come with some pieces in Japan.

Andy Aigner: No. In my (heretic?) view they don’t add anything to the intrinsic beauty or value of the object. They are, however, marvelous if you want to transport fragile objects over long distances.

David Pike: I have noticed a decrease in the willingness of sellers to bring good quality onto the market since the prices can’t be had. Do you think that ties in with your observation that the quantity of quality pieces at reasonable prices has decreased?

Andy Aigner: Here in England, some top-quality pieces can still be had, but at absolutely astronomic prices. What concerns me is the increasing lack of mid-range items (which is mostly what I am specializing in); this might very well be due to the fact that everyone currently concentrates on China and thus, as you said, the prices for Japanese antiques are very low.

A blue Chawan bowl and lid.

An Iro-e Kakiemon dish.

David Pike: What are some of your best pieces?

Andy Aigner: The most difficult question; I have so many that I really love. Well, here goes:

• A set of four kidney-shaped Ko-Imari dishes from the mid-17th century;
• Two Satsuma vases with scenes from a very well-known part of Japanese history (the story of Ushiwakamaru and Benkei);
• A set of five chawan from about 1800, decorated in red and gold only;
• An iro-e (coloured) Kakiemon plate from the 18th century;
• A catalog of kimono designs (more than a hundred) from the turn of the 19th/20th century. This is definitely one of the pieces giving you a great sense of history;
• A mostly blue-and-white chawan with floral designs from the 18th century.

David Pike: What is the process after you buy a piece? I would like to know how you get to know a new piece, research a new piece.

Andy Aigner: If there is any signature or mark on it, I usually get the help of my wife in reading and/or translating it. Next step will be various Internet searches, which in most cases, however, do not yield too many results. The final (and usually by far most successful) step is to ask fellow enthusiasts on the invaluable Gotheborg web site. The breadth and depth of knowledge there is absolutely fascinating.

David Pike: How often do you sell a piece from your collection?

Andy Aigner: By definition, never. Anything that gets sold is part of the “business side,” and for one reason or another, not up to the standards required to stay in my collection.

Of course there are border-line cases. Sometimes I get a set of three or four pieces and usually only want to keep one; in these cases I do sell off the remaining ones. However, when I get a complete set of five dishes from the 18th century, I tend to keep them all rather than break up the set.

David Pike: What do you hope to do with your collection?

Andy Aigner: Not having any children, I have not yet seriously thought about this.

David Pike: What does your wife think about your collecting activities?

Andy Aigner: She joins me whenever I go antiques hunting; this is very much a shared passion.

David Pike: Have you ever thought about giving up?

Andy Aigner: No

David Pike: What is the longest you have gone with-out purchasing something?

Andy Aigner: Six months—after moving back from Japan to Belgium in July 2009 and then having to prepare another international move (to the UK).

David Pike: Do you have regrets about pieces you didn’t purchase?

A piece Andy calls the "strangest" in his collection.

The back of the "strangest" piece.

Andy Aigner: Very rarely; I have so many beautiful pieces and I know there are many more to come.

David Pike: Thoughts for other collectors? Do you have advice to someone who is new to collecting?

Andy Aigner: Try to handle (or at least look at) as many genuine pieces as possible, so that you get a feel for what is “right.” Try to find a mentor (e.g. an honest and knowledgeable dealer) and join a discussion board like Gotheborg, so that you can get some advice from friendly long-time collectors.

David Pike: What do you say to someone who is trying to build a collection as a means to build wealth? Their goal is to have the pieces appreciate in value.

Andy Aigner: I am probably not the best person to give this kind of advice, because this was never my goal, but it seems to be universally accepted that you should buy fewer and more valuable pieces rather than many cheap ones.

David Pike: Do you think it is possible to build a collection on a “pocket money” budget?

Andy Aigner: Absolutely, but you need some patience. Close to half the pieces in my collection have cost less than £20.

David Pike: What are the best places to buy?

Andy Aigner: Japan, especially the Tokyo area.

David Pike: What are the best places to avoid?

Andy Aigner: EBay, China and Hong Kong. In my experience, roughly 100-percent of all Chinese and Japanese pieces offered on these sites are fakes.

David Pike is a Worthologist who specializes in items from Japan, including porcelain.

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5 Responses to “Buying and Enjoying Japanese Porcelain & Historic Items; A Collector’s Take”

  1. What a wonderful interview. I admire Japanese porcelain and pottery. How fortunate your wife can translate for you. That is the difficult part of buying oriental pieces for me. I go strictly on instinct. If I like it and it appears to be quality and I can afford it, I buy it. Gotheberg is helpful, but I find it difficult to use the site, even though I have a paid subscription. Thank you so much for sharing some of your collection.

  2. Dean Kelly says:

    Nice interview Dave. I am a collector and dealer of both Japanese and Chinese items. I share Andy’s views on collecting Japanese being much easier and certainly more affordable than Chinese items. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the quality Chinese piece when I can find it, but I make far less errors on Japanese purchases than Chinese. I especially appreciate the artistic quality of the Meiji period.

    I find Gotheborg as being an invaluable asset when it comes to learning about the items I collect.

    Best regards,
    Dean Kelly

  3. Linda Nelson says:

    I enjoyed the interview very much. My grandparents started collecting Japanese China Tea sets for me when I was young. I didn’t get it until I was 21 or 22. I have collected so much now I can not display it all. I use the less fragile cups and saucers and tea pots. My Grandmother encouraged me to use it rather than just display. She was right. It is delightful to use my china for company or just when I want a special moment. I will still keep collecting but am a bit choosier in what I buy.
    Thanks for a great read.
    Linda

  4. tom curb says:

    Where can someone get a good reference book (or website) for identification of Japanese porcelain marks?

  5. liz jamar says:

    I am very curious in finding reference material as well. My mother had a collection of Japanese pieces she said that my grandfather had brought back from his time over there. Unfortunatley they have both passed and I am trying to get some apprasals done for insurance without spending a ton of money on having someone come out and look it all over.

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