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An Introduction to the Controversial World of Japanese Netsuke Signatures

by David Pike (08/20/12).

The signature on an ivory netsuke by Kokusai, who was a pupil of the famous carver Doraku and he himself had many pupils. He is regarded as an important representative of the Osaka-style. While this is a genuine signature, identifying signatures on other netsuke can be a tall order.

A signature on an antique is usually a good pointer to who made the item, as well as where and when it was made. For collectors of netsuke—little carved counterweights for the cord used to tie pouches that held personal belongings—a way to determining the history of particular piece would be welcomed indeed.

Well then, welcome to the controversial world of signatures on netsuke.

It seems reasonable to assume that if a netsuke is signed, then that should serve as a guarantee of sorts that the piece comes from the hand of the signer and period in which the carver worked. Not so fast, though.

You need to know carving styles and quality to determine authenticity for the oldest, early period netsuke, as well as later work, before you can rely on the signature. Signatures can serve as pointers to who may have made the piece, but they don’t act as guarantees of authenticity.

Classifying Netsuke
Netsuke can be divided up into three periods: the Early Period, (up to 1868); the Middle Period, also called the Meiji period (from the late 1860s to 1912), and contemporary or modern period. Pre-Meiji netsuke are “real” in the sense that post-Meiji netsuke were increasingly made for Westerners as souvenirs.

The signature on a manju netsuke made from ivory.

The obverse of the ivory manju netsuke.

Netsuke Reproductions
In Japanese journals dating back more than 200 years, there are writings of carvers imitating the work and signature of well-known netsuke makers. This form of flattery continues up to the present day, with some less-scrupulous dealers even ordering netsuke reproductions from China and selling them as older originals.

Reproductions are often be copied from photographs in auction catalogs, which offer only a 2-D representation of a three-dimensional original sculpture. Because of this inconstancy, there are often weaknesses in netsuke reproductions, since the parts of the netsuke not visible in the photo have to be improvised. One factor to look for to identify netsuke made in this manner is if the netsuke was made to sit flat. If the netsuke is able to sit on its own it may have been made as a reproduction since they are supposed to hang from a cord and won’t necessarily have been designed to stand on their own. Another point to look for is if the front and back seem significantly different in quality or esthetics.

Also look for the placement of the himotoshi—the holes for the cord. They should be in a place that doesn’t interfere with the overall esthetics of the netsuke.

If you are buying netsuke in person, listen closely to what the seller is saying. The seller should have a wealth of knowledge about the piece, not only about the material but also the age of the piece being sold. Being overly focused on one or the other might suggest either the age isn’t there or the material is different from what it seems it is advertised as.

The signature of Shunko on a netsuke depicting a pair of frogs.

The obverse of the Shunko frog netsuke.

An area that is difficult to fool people on is corners. Genuine netsuke will have been, at a minimum, held and touched enough that the edges have been worn to rounded edges. A close look at the himotoshi, the two holes the cord passes through, and any other corners is a good starting point to look at corners for authenticity.

There are a number of different ways that people selling netsuke bend the truth.

Misrepresentation of the Material: The overwhelming choice of material to misrepresent is ivory. If the piece is ivory, it will have a nice, light-to-medium brown color to it. Netsuke made from materials other than ivory, but represented as ivory, will instead be much whiter, having the color of porcelain. There are techniques that people use to make other materials look like ivory. One characteristic of genuine ivory is that ivory will oxidize more on the areas that are exposed to air, less on any areas that have been less exposed to air. If the netsuke has been stored on a flat area of the carving that area should be more ivory color (i.e., less brown) than the other portions. If the material is the same color everywhere, that would be unusual because of the oxidation patterns of ivory.

Misrepresentation of the Location of Manufacture: This covers netsuke that have been misrepresented as made in Japan but having actually been made elsewhere. Most netsuke made elsewhere produced in either China or Hong Kong.

Misrepresentation of the Date of Manufacture: Selling a recently carved netsuke as made in a different time period.

Misrepresentation of the Signature: Signatures can be added any time after the netsuke was made. The presence of a signature doesn’t actually guarantee anything as far as authenticity goes. It is never sufficient to go by the signature alone when looking at a netsuke, but there are some areas that should ring warning bells when detected. If the signature is added in a material that is different from the wood and is inlaid into the netsuke material, then it is almost guaranteed to be a fake. If the name in the inlay is Matsuyama or Ishikawa—松山 or石川, respectively—be aware, as these are frequently used for “Made in China” netsuke. And remember, many early period netsuke don’t carry any signature at all.

Copying the Design of Someone Famous: This gets a little confusing, as well-known carvers were copied even in their day. This area covers forgeries signed as made by more famous carvers.

The inscription on a manju netsuke.

The obverse of the manju netsuke.

Well-Known Carvers
This is a partial list of the thousands of carvers. I have included some of the kanji—logographic characters—used in the signatures. NOTE: The carved signature will be very different from these computer fonts.

A wooden netsuke in the form of a cluster of mushrooms.

The mushroom netsuke from the side.

The signature on the bottom of the wooden mushroom netsuke.

Tomotada – 友 – animals and others. Active around 1780 in Kyoto.
Masanao – 正直 – Early 1800s onward, in the Ise area. There were four Masanaos in a lineage. All worked mostly in wood, and their specialty was animals.
Tomokazu – 友一 – Gifu area, 19th century.
Mitsuhiro –光廣 – Mid-19th century.
Okatomo – 山口岡友– Late-18th century
Matsushige – 18th-19th century
Shibayama Soichi – Mid-late 19th century
Jugyoku – 19th century
Hidemasa I – Late-18th to early 19th century.
Chikuyosai Tomochika – Early 18th to mid-19th century
Hikaku – Early 18th to mid-19th century
Kiyomaru – 19th century
Mitsuharu – Mid-18th century
Masatami – Mid-19th century
Seiyodo Bunshojo – Late-18th to mid-19th century
Ikkosai Toun – Early to mid-19th century.
Minkoku II – Early 19th century
Shuko – First half of 19th century
Miyasaka Hakuryu – Mid-19th century
Suzuki Masakatsu – Second half of the 19th century
Kishosai – 19th century
Yoshinaga school From the 18th-century on in Kyoto.
Koyoken Yoshinaga – 廣葉軒吉長– People, Kyoto, 18th century
Yoshitomo – 吉友 – People, demons. Kyoto, 18th century
Yoshimasa – 吉正– Kyoto. Latter 18th century, early 19th century
Masamoriv 正守– Kyoto. Latter-18th century, early19th century
Yoshinao – 吉直– Kyoto. Latter 18th century, early 19th century

Without getting too detailed on what constitutes real authenticity, I will start with the statement that all real, old netsuke should have been made in Japan. They are an original Japanese item so old netsuke made outside of Japan will have been made with the purpose of representing themselves as “Made in Japan.”

Setting a ground rule that a fake, forged or reproduction netsuke means there was some effort put into making you—the buyer—think that the netsuke you are thinking about buying was made by someone or in a time that it actually wasn’t is a start in defining authenticity.

The signature of Shugetsu on the back of a wooden mask netsuke.

The obverse of the wooden mask netsuke.

It is important to decide on what you are looking for. Do you want an old, high-quality piece or is age not your most important criterion? That is to say, just because a netsuke was made fairly recently doesn’t mean it isn’t of high quality. There are many people working today producing high-quality netsuke.

Basically, there isn’t a substitute for time spent looking at authentic, well-done netsuke to build up your knowledge of what is genuine and of the period and what isn’t. You need to look at a lot of real netsuke to be able to distinguish between genuine and copies. That, and a lot of studying will determine how well you will be able to buy good-quality netsuke.

It might be a better tactic to focus in on the carving style instead of the signature. The carving style will tell you much more about a particular example if the style matches up with the style of the carver who supposedly signed the piece.

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


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One Response to “An Introduction to the Controversial World of Japanese Netsuke Signatures”

  1. roger b says:

    just to say, to the best of my knowledge, the Chinese also used netsukes over a long period. I have in my collection a late 1700′s early 1800′s black stone material netsuke of a long bearded man with a fly whisk. I would appreciate your input on this if poss.

    yours Roger

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