Good Things in Small Packages: Interview with an Expert Netsuke Collector

A late 18th-century shishi netsuke carved by Mitsuharu. Netsuke collecting can be a rewarding experience, but it requires a lot of study, says expert David S. Pike.

Los Angeles–based attorney David S. White always had a flair for collecting. Growing up in Massachusetts, he collected stamps, coins, airmail and zeppelin posts and postcards. His passions evolved in time to include Nikon cameras, African masks, political memorabilia, paperweights, books and historical maps, and he continues his collections today.

But when Japanese netsuke caught his collector’s eye, he was well and completely hooked.

White has immersed himself in the history and lore of netsuke, and in six short years he is a seasoned collector of netsuke and recognized as an expert in netsuke-collectors’ circles. He serves as a co-moderator of the International Netsuke Society Forums, co-chaired the 2011 International Netsuke Society Convention in Beverly Hills and authored an upcoming cover article for the International Netsuke Society Journal to appear this summer.

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

David S. White: I did not grow up wealthy, but my family was very intelligent and valued knowledge more than money. My father was a history teacher and later a history-textbook editor who collected books and taught me to treasure them. I believe that I collect to satisfy my own intellectual curiosity about the world around me and because I have a true passion for collecting those things in which I find myself interested. It is not really something that I control. I firmly believe that collectors are simply born and not made, and others who know me might say that it controls me more than the opposite. But I have learned to “go with it,” to not fight the urge and to make the passion to collect into something that nurtures the soul and excites the mind—both of which it surely does for me.

David Pike: When did you start collecting netsuke? Did you start out buying thinking of building a collection?

David S. White: I have had a strange attraction to netsuke for decades now. I have always seen them out of the corner of my eye in many places in my travels, but I was always collecting something else at the time. They consistently fascinated me, though I knew next to nothing about them.

About six years ago, I was on a trip with my wife in Mendocino in Northern California, and my wife saw me looking over a replica of a netsuke for sale at a shop there. It was from Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts collection. It cost all of $20, I think. When I left the store, my wife bought it for me, and the packaging gave a brief history of netsuke and their function, which led me to a Google search, which led me to the International Netsuke Society website and the INS Forums, and I simply became spellbound.

I spent a year reading every book, magazine article and auction catalog I could buy, trying to make up for lost decades and to completely immerse myself in the world of Old Japan, which one inevitably does when one discovers an attraction for netsuke. I read every single International Netsuke Society Journal, including the publications of predecessor organizations, and I was on my way.

After a year of reading and thinking and a few lame attempts to buy what I thought were collectible netsuke but were not—as so many start out doing—I befriended a kindly dealer who visited me and spent an entire afternoon explaining a couple of dozen netsuke to me. I bought one for a lot more than the junk I had been buying, and I was truly hooked.

David Pike: What is your philosophy for collecting?

An early 18th-century netsuke of Ono No Komachi carved by Hidemasa.

David S. White: My collecting philosophy is simple and direct: read, read and then read some more. Then form your own library so that you don’t have to depend on the opinions of others quite as much. Buy what you fall in love with—not because you believe that this or that master carved it. Buy what will bring a smile to your face for years to come whenever you handle the piece. Netsuke are a tactile art form. They are meant to be handled and very closely examined to see what the carvers were able to accomplish in such a tiny format. Buy what you like and appreciate, but by all means, do your homework first!

David Pike: What is your philosophy for buying?

David S. White: In my humble opinion, netsuke are one of the last great bargains in the art world. Times of financial distress often feature a “flight to collectibles.” The Chinese antique art market has been on fire these last few years, and netsuke had a huge increase in prices back in the 70s, when they were “discovered” by the modern world. Since then, they have zoomed up in price and then slumped down again. One can spend $1,000, $10,000 or $100,000 on a netsuke. There’s something at every price level, but the competition in recent years is growing fierce and many outstanding collections owned by folks in their 70s and 80s will be coming to the auction market within this decade.

My last bit of wisdom here is that you cannot own everything, so be particular and be choosy. Pick styles and carvers and subjects that you love. I have a specialized collection of netsuke carved by Anraku and Anrakusai.

David Pike: What are your main interests regarding netsuke?

David S. White: I find both antique and modern—the name that I prefer over “contemporary”—netsuke to be of interest, but most of my collection and my interest is in the antique pieces. In addition to forming a specialized collection of one carver, I love figural pieces depicting legendary subjects and characters, particularly shishis. I also love monkey netsuke and tall pieces. Manju netsuke are undervalued and underappreciated, and many are amazingly well carved. I also am attracted to unusual netsuke subjects and materials.

David Pike: How many pieces do you have?

David S. White: Somewhere upwards of 75. I’ve lost count.

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 underrepresented if taking a survey-type look at the field of netsuke and your collection?

David S. White: It would be wickedly hard to have a complete, representative collection of netsuke because there are so many to select from unless one had the proverbial bottomless checkbook, which I surely do not enjoy. Also, some subjects come in and out of fashion from time to time. I made a “want list” some time ago, and I think I have filled it pretty completely. It would be fun to try to own a representative of every significant subject or carver, but with something in the neighborhood of 3,000 known antique carvers, it would be nearly impossible to have one from every carver.

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

David S. White: The hardest thing as a beginning collector is to deal with the sticker-shock of how much these tiny sculptures cost. After you get over that hurdle and can write a large check for a netsuke when it sufficiently moves you to do so without pangs of guilt or having a nervous breakdown, then you have to develop confidence in your own judgment. It is a real minefield out there, and many have become discouraged from bad experiences buying from collectors or dealers who may be perceived to have taken unfair advantage. The INS website has a whole page of our supporting advertiser dealers who are well known to the members, so one can proceed relatively comfortably in doing business with them.

David Pike: As a collector that has experience what are your biggest challenges now?

David S. White: The biggest challenges are always justifying how much money you are able to spend. Forming a netsuke collection is not like investing in stocks, bonds or real estate; you should not count on being able to sell them quickly for what you paid. But, if you deal with reputable people and do your homework—I can’t over-stress this point enough times—purchases pose less risk.

The other big challenge is justifying these purchases to your loved one or spouse.

David Pike: Do you still make mistakes in purchases?

David S. White: No, I’ve been cautious enough and lucky enough to avoid making serious mistakes, and, offhand, I can’t think of one that I made. But, as I said earlier, I did nothing but read for a year before I bought anything. Those who rush in and spend like drunken sailors usually regret it later. Those who are cautious and who do their homework get where they want to go.

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

David S. White: Because I started relatively late in life and after collecting many other things, I am pretty satisfied with the choices that I have made thus far. My largest regrets are the pieces that I waited too long to buy, or was indecisive about. I lost those opportunities, and I regret having lost them—painfully, in some instances.

David Pike: How often, on average, do you purchase?

David S. White: It is a very irregular thing. There is an Asia Week in New York and London twice every year—once in spring, once in fall. Auctions are often tied to those, and I sometimes bid in those, as well as in other auctions at all levels. INS holds its convention every two years. Because you can see more netsuke under one roof at an INS Convention than most people could see in a lifetime of haunting antique shops, the likelihood of buying at an INS Convention is higher. But, there is no regularity at all in my acquisitions, and I have gone months without making a purchase and then bought several in a very short time thereafter.

David Pike: What was your first piece? Do you still own it?

David S. White: My first serious collector netsuke is a wonderful, fairly large ivory Hotei standing figure that is quite old. It may be 17th century or even earlier. It has huge age-cracks all over and lots of aji (patina). I very proudly still own it. I have never sold a netsuke and do not plan on doing so. Although they say that most collectors are also “vest-pocket dealers,” I am pure collector all the way.

David Pike: What are some of your best pieces?

White’s 18th-century Kino & the Carp netsuke, carved by Yoshimoto, is one of the better pieces of White’s collection.

David S. White: I have several. One is a spectacular Kino & the Carp by Yoshitomo. Another is a Mitsuharu shishi, of which I am quite fond. I also have a number of other wonderful shishis, several chomping on peonies, and many monkeys; my favorites are carved by Masatami. I also have a figural netsuke by Hidemasa that research has allowed tracing of the ownership all the way to the days of Old Japan. That is a real rarity in the world of netsuke, where so much documentation and history is sadly lacking.

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.

David S. White: I usually get photos in advance and study them for researching the piece. First, I go into my library and check the Lazarnick and Meinertzhagen treatises. Then, I try to generally read up on the carver and subject matter and to find the piece in auction records or in the Fuld’s Netsuke and Ojime Index. I also photograph and write a computer file on each netsuke that contains all my research for future reference. Best of all, I try to spend a goodly amount of time just holding and examining the netsuke from all angles to get to know it. There is so much to see and experience in such a small carving!

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

David S. White: Never. I’m a pure collector, through and through.

David Pike: How do you display the netsuke in your collection?

David S. White: I keep a few in my office and a few at home, but almost all are in safe-deposit boxes, where they are securely stored. I have a mahogany Chinese hanging wall case with dragons carved on top, and I use that to house some of my netsuke when I bring a few home to enjoy or to share with others.

David Pike: How do you deal with the clutter associated with collecting?

David S. White: Albert Einstein once famously said, “If a cluttered desk is a sign of something, what does an empty desk tell you?” I am a serious clutterer. I have learned, however, to confine my clutter to my home office upstairs at my house or to one corner of my desk at my office. This keeps others from freaking out.

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

David S. White: My wife is not a collector type, and it has been a source of a good deal of friction in our relationship and a few really intense arguments. However, slowly but surely, she is getting used to it and even begun to appreciate it as a manifestation of me and my passions in this world.

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

David S. White: My hope is that either my adult son or daughter will carry it on when I’m gone. If I cannot succeed in interesting either of them to do so, then I plan on donating my collection to a museum; it will be my modest legacy to the art world.

David Pike: Have you ever thought about giving up?

David S. White: No, it is really the gift that keeps on giving for me. I have made friends with fascinating people all over the world through netsuke, and the kind of people who are attracted to netsuke are a whole range of very interesting and intelligent folks. This is my passion for the rest of my compos mentis days. I eagerly look forward to attending the next INS Convention in London in May 2013. If readers join INS before that time, they can attend, too. It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to immerse yourself in the world of netsuke!

David Pike: What is the longest you have gone without purchasing something?

David S. White: Since I started at this, probably a few months.

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

David S. White: Yes, as I said earlier, I have vivid memories of netsuke that I waited too long while considering and lost to another buyer.

A monkey netsuke by Masatami.

Also, there were a few that I didn’t bid on at auction that I later learned could have been bought at very favorable prices. I remember each of them very well. In fact, that is one of the factors I consider before buying a netsuke: Will I sincerely regret missing out on this one if I don’t buy it?

David Pike: Do you have advice to someone who is new to collecting netsuke?

David S. White: Study, study and more study! Knowledge is power, and nowhere more than in the world of netsuke. The more you read and study and know, the better you are equipped to really find the worthy collectible netsuke at the right prices. You would be amazed to realize that you know more than many antique dealers and other sellers, but it really pays off when you do.

David Pike: What do you say to someone who is trying to build a collection as a means to build wealth—that is, people whose goal is to have the pieces appreciate in value?

David S. White: I say good luck and via con Dios! I do not recommend “investing” in netsuke or any other form of fine art. There is a whole intense level of aesthetic appreciation, satisfaction and relaxation to be had instead. If you don’t lose money, you are doing well. If you or your heirs eventually make some money on your collection, you are doing even better. Art is not an investment; it is to be enjoyed.

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

David S. White: Yes, but it’s not easy. You need to kiss a lot of frogs and visit a lot of out-of-the-way antique stores, but most dealers have netsuke that are more modestly priced if you ask for them. Of the supporting dealers who advertise on the INS website, there are some at very high world-class levels, others at mid-range and a few who offer budget-priced pieces. But the days of seriously cheaply priced netsuke are long gone now.

Los Angeles–based attorney David S. White is an avid collector of many things, but his greatest passion are netsuke.

David Pike: Where are the best places to buy?

David S. White: Collector-to-collector sales or trades are the best. Also, I frequent antique stores and antique malls and flea markets whenever I am traveling or have the opportunity. When you get to know them and they get to know you, some dealers will work with you very closely to help you form a great collection.

David Pike: What are the best places to avoid?

David S. White: Auctions are very expensive when you consider the commissions that you have to pay and how much those percentages have risen over the last several years. In addition, you often have to pay for shipping and insurance and taxes, where applicable. But some world-class netsuke are only available, albeit briefly, on auction, and then they disappear again into a collection, not to be seen again for a generation. If you miss them at auction, you can often buy the piece from a dealer after the auction, but then you additionally will be paying the dealer’s profit.

Also, avoid netsuke buying on EBay like the plague. You will not be knowledgeable enough to pluck out the one-tenth of one percent of collectible netsuke for a long time, and it is easy to get ripped off. Equally avoid auctions online in remote places and countries and consider asking a dealer to bid for you. Buying at auction is challenging enough, but adding to that are currency-conversion issues, fees for all kinds of things, the possible need for Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) certificates and too much else.

David Pike: If you were owed $20,000 and were offered, instead, a single netsuke priced about 20 percent under value, what netsuke do you hope it would be?

David S. White: A really spectacular large 18th-century carving of a tall figure or a whole handful of a chunky shishi (Katabori) in wood, carved by my favorite carver, unsigned.

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

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