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The Collector’s Minute: Japanese Sumida Ware

by Mike Wilcox (06/15/10).

Examples of 19th-century Japanese export pottery called “Sumida ware.”

Examples of 19th-century Japanese export pottery called “Sumida ware.”

Among the strangest pieces to came out of the Orient during the late 19th century are Japanese export pottery called “Sumida ware,” named after their original origins near the Sumida River that flowed by the Asakusa pottery district. This style, with its high-relief decoration, appeared about 1890 and is believed to be the invention of a potter named Inoue Ryosai, who worked in Tokyo, circa 1875-1900. Production of Sumida pottery shifted to Yokohama about 1924 and continued in production until the Second World War.

Unlike a great many other Asian pottery styles, Sumida was not used just for decorative vases or urns; it can found in the form any type of general table ware, from teapots to candlesticks. The decoration covers the whole gamut from Japanese fables, landscapes and happy peasants. The most often image depicted is the monkey, an animal that appears in a great deal of Japanese folklore as a mischief maker. One famous example—now in the Lightner Museum in St. Augustine, Fla. —is a vase created by Inoue Ryosai that has 354 applied monkey figures clambering all over the roofs in a village, each with its own unique look.

Most Sumida pottery is marked. The marks tend to be on the side of the pottery or base, some on a white tile attached to the piece. The earlier pieces have marks in Japanese Kanji script, later examples with the familiar “Nippon” marking, used until 1921, with “Made in Japan” generally after that date. Some pieces are unmarked; either they were never marked or had paper or foil labels which have long since been removed or worn off. To date more than 70 different marks have been cataloged.

Values vary depending on the quality of the decoration, the size of the piece and the maker, with some large monkey vases with the mark of Inoue Ryosai selling for more than $10,000 at auction. Smaller pieces by lesser known makers sell for less than $80.

Mike Wilcox, of Wilcox & Hall Appraisers, is a Worthologist who specializes in Art Nouveau and the Arts and Craft movement.

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