Fabulous Finds: Amazing Japanese Prints amid Upstate New York Cow Pies

Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806) depicted late 18th- and early 19th-century Japan. The print above it titled "Three Seated Ladies with Lanterns."

Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806) depicted late 18th- and early 19th-century Japan. The print above it titled “Three Seated Ladies with Lanterns.”

The great hue and cry these days from longtime dealers is that they cannot find their antiques, collectibles and fine art in all the usual places. Their old stomping grounds just don’t exist anymore. Instead of diversifying and going on the Internet, they will draw in on themselves, divesting their own collections and professionally poaching on their rivals to suit the needs of their clients.

Now, I’m not talking about the new dealers, the thirty-somethings, the darlings of the Internet, who walk around shows and shops clicking digital cameras and downloading the pictures onto sites around the world. I am referring to the old guard who have become anachronisms, Hogarth caricatures of themselves. There’s a place for these curmudgeon types—in glass cases with small printed cards that read: “Antiquarian 20th-century specimen.”

My reaction to these guys is to remember them fondly as a part of my childhood learning curve. They taught me a great deal. They imparted their wisdom, sometimes begrudgingly, sometimes with an enthusiasm that matched my own childish bumptiousness. One of these relics, a rare hothouse variety who has made the transition into the 21st century and now conducts his business online, invited me to an upstate New York sale.

“Don’t get too excited,” he said. “The sale will probably be junk, but I hear there are a couple of decent country pieces and probably a lot of tractor parts. Oh, and bring your boots. We’ll probably be in a field somewhere.”

The wellies were duly packed, and I arrived in upstate New York in a little town called something like Tooten-on-the-Hudson. The sale was just about to start, and we had the opportunity to view the small but promising collection of furniture, unpromising chipped pottery, cracked Staffordshire and, as promised, tractors, combines, tillers and other farm equipment.

"Seated Woman."

Utamaro’s “Seated Woman.”

We both exhaled with the disappointment of the collection. We were standing in a pasture that probably had been cleared of cows the day before. And, frankly, I don’t know what these cows had been eating, but wow, there was manure aplenty. The sun warming up the dung prompted the memory of many a country sale that I had attended in the past.

This was a far cry from the salesrooms and gilded halls where I was of late more accustomed to frequent. The auctioneer was good and fast. Really fast. So fast that the uninitiated were bidding against themselves. He cleared most of the collection by noon. My friend picked up two good Federal fancy chairs and a tigerwood tripod table. Now it seemed what was left was to rid the seller of all the rusted farm equipment.

We hung in for another hour, consoling ourselves with hot dogs and lemonade from the concession stand, when the auctioneer paused and produced, like the proverbial rabbit from a hat, seven framed prints that had not, heretofore, been seen.

Once again I experienced a solar-plexus smack that said run, don’t walk, to the front and check them out. Casually, I traversed the field. Leaving my friend in mid-sentence and after several dead-on hits with cow pies, I got to the front.

“Utamaro,” I said aloud.

"Takashima Ohisa Using Two Mirrors to Observe Her Coiffure – Night of the Asakusa Marketing Festival."

Utamaro’s “Takashima Ohisa Using Two Mirrors to Observe Her Coiffure – Night of the Asakusa Marketing Festival.”

“What?” said the man next to me.

“What?” I said back to him while I zeroed in on the late 18th- and early 19th-century Japanese prints. “Oh nothing, they’re not what I thought they were.”

The man, losing interest, turned away.

Unbelievably, in the middle of hayracks, bailing wire and milking machines were some of the loveliest Japanese prints I had seen outside a public collection. I recognized them because I had just finished cataloging a collection that was good but not like these.

Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806) was an innovative Japanese artist. While Europe was adding yet another putti and floral flounce to their paintings, he was producing refined and simply elegant depictions of 18th-century Japanese life.

These prints were real, and their condition was unbelievably good. They consisted of highborn ladies at their toilet, stylized with large portrait heads in which the design style, unique to Utamaro, relies on the outlined elongated features of the face, detailed decoration of the coiffured hair and painstaking rendering of the clothing.

The bidding started low. I bid $50. Silence. Suddenly a voice from across the field said, “One hundred-fifty.” Okay, these prints are worth easily several thousand, I said to myself. “Two hundred,” I said.

"Courtesan Hisui from Ogiya"

Utamaro’s “Courtesan Hisui from Ogiya”

“Three hundred,” said the voice.

“Three-fifty.”

“Four.”

“Four-fifty,” I said. Okay, who is this jerk bidding against me? I turned around and saw my friend raising his hand to top my bid. One is capable in rare instances when the occasion calls for it to send out daggers, thunderbolts, paralyzing paroxysms of pain. He got the full thrust of my message, threw up his hands in an “I surrender, who knew?” gesture and turned away to get another hot dog. Hammer down at $450. His apology was finally accepted after a second bottle of Bordeaux that evening.

I resold the prints through an agent to an unknown buyer. Two years later, I received a large box the day before Christmas. I opened it, and to my amazement, there were the framed prints. The enclosed note read, “Merry Christmas, I decided we’ll enjoy these on a lend-lease exchange, yours for the next two years. Enjoy, and happy New Year.” It was from my friend, the bid-oblivious dealer.


Christopher Kent is an antiques and collectibles generalist and fine-arts broker.

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