One Man’s 25-Year Journey Collecting Japanese Ceramics

A large Shoza plate that John Wocher considers to be the best piece in this 500-plus-piece collection of Japanese ceramics.

A large Shoza plate that John Wocher considers to be the best piece in this 500-piece collection of Japanese ceramics.

Are you a collector or are you in an accumulating phase? I interviewed John Wocher, a hospital executive in Kamogawa, Chiba Prefecture, who has put together an impressive collection of Japanese ceramics over the last 25 years or so about how he accumulated his collection.

David Pike: How long have you been in Japan?

John Wocher:Twenty-one years, this time. The first time was from 1964 to 1966.

David Pike: When did you start collecting?

John Wocher: I accumulated first and then I collected. Serious since about 1990

David Pike: Why do you collect?

John Wocher: I think it is man’s nature to collect. Everyone collects something—it seems a natural behavior. I collect for personal pleasure, knowledge and to share that pleasure and knowledge with others. Secondarily, I think we collectors are preserving history in some small way, passing it on to the next generation to delight in it and to learn about history through these collectables.

David Pike: How many pieces do you have?

John Wocher: I have never counted them, but should do an inventory at some point in time but I keep putting it off. I guess somewhere near 500 pieces, but many are not so large and don’t take up too much room. I had a special collection area built in my house to display pieces.

David Pike: How did you become interested in collecting?

A detail from the Shoza plate.

A detail from the Shoza plate.

John Wocher has been collecting Japanese ceramics for the last 25 years.

John Wocher has been collecting Japanese ceramics for the last 25 years.

John Wocher: Not sure. It is something that grows on you slowly. I bought several Kutani pieces in the late ’80s in my “accumulating phase.” Then I saw a spectacular piece and bought it. There was no comparison. As I got exposed to better and better pieces, my tastes and desire grew. I was impressed with the uniqueness of Japanese art forms and the quality. But it was not just porcelain in the beginning. It was Japanese art in many forms, from woodblock prints, to furniture such as tansu to lacquer and the whole spectrum. But I could not accumulate everything! I found porcelain also to be functional, and that appealed to me.

David Pike: What is your philosophy for collecting?

John Wocher: Collect fewer but better pieces. Quality over quantity and think in advance about how the piece will be displayed or used.

David Pike: What are your main interests?

John Wocher: Meiji to Taisho Kutani with a preference for aka-e kinrande , Shoza style and Taisho aotsubu style .

David Pike: When did you first become interested in Kutani?

John Wocher: In about 1972, when I remember buying a Kutani dish that caught my eye in a small shop and I still have it. I always will remember buying it. I thought it was spectacular. I now realize it is rather ordinary, but it still pleases me.

David Pike: How much have you studied Kutani?

John Wocher: A lot. I have most books on Kutani written in English and an extensive mini-library on Kutani, as well as books on Japanese porcelain of all kinds. But learning is never-ending. I am not so good at contemporary Kutani, but better on ko-Kutani .

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?

John Wocher: Regarding Kutani, I think it is well represented for the Meiji-Taisho era overlapping a bit earlier. But overall, no. Kutani is so wide and deep, particularly in that era and earlier, that it is very difficult, particularly finding authentic pieces of say, Eiraku , Mokubei and it probably can’t be done.

David Pike: What are some of your best pieces?

This large 17th century Imari bowl is the oldest piece in Wocher’s collection.

This large 17th century Imari bowl is the oldest piece in Wocher’s collection.

This striking Imari sometsuke plate measures 1 meter in diameter.

This striking Imari sometsuke plate measures 1 meter in diameter.

John Wocher: As a mental exercise, I have often pondered what three or four pieces I would try and rescue in case my house caught fire, assuming my family was safe. I think a probably authentic large Shoza plate, a large 17th century Imari bowl and my 1-meter-in-diameter Imari sometsuke plate, but each time I think about it, my thinking changes!

David Pike: Is there a process of getting to know a piece after you buy it?

John Wocher: Absolutely. Collecting means spending time with pieces; not hoarding them and putting them in closets for later. New acquisitions almost always get displayed shortly after arrival. Maybe an older piece then gets put away. If functional, use them soon. Study a piece closely—there is much to learn by handling a piece. Each interaction with a piece adds to your knowledge. Post it on a forum for comments. Rotate your collection as it grows. Visit old friends so to speak. Enjoy your collection.

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

John Wocher: For me, rarely. Maybe once or twice a year. However, at my age, I need to think about who will own my pieces after I am gone. We can only possess them for a short time. They belonged to someone else when we purchased them and eventually will belong to someone else after we are gone. This is something everyone will eventually face.

David Pike: Philosophy for buying?

The first piece Wocher purchased.

The first piece Wocher purchased.

Detail of the first piece of the collection.

Detail of the first piece of the collection.

John Wocher: Avoid impulse buying. Buy the best pieces one can afford and realize more is not better. A ¥50,000 piece is more satisfying in the long run than 10 ¥5,000 pieces in most circumstances. Buy pieces with historical significance, if possible, representing a style or period, with known artists/decorators in a style you like most. Try to narrow your field. I like Meiji to Taisho Kutani the best. Sure, I will buy outside that field on occasion, to include Imari , Nabeshima and Hirado , as examples, but my focus is Kutani. You must like what you buy. A marked or signed piece is generally more collectable because it often aids in dating and identifying origin. An artist, shop name, location, kiln mark or date is always an important clue. The tomobako is very important, particularly if original to the piece. It often contains more information than on the piece itself. In some cases, the tomobako is worth more than the piece it holds!

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

John Wocher: For me, the challenge is what now? I am winding down and the question on the horizon is what to do with the pieces I have collected. Every collector will face this, whether you are a stamp or coin collector or are collecting art. I have to face this pretty soon.

David Pike: Do you still make mistakes in purchases?

John Wocher: Yes, but not often. At antique fairs and shows where there is an opportunity to ask questions and hold a piece in your hand, rarely. Internet pieces represent risk of mistakes, but if one is knowledgeable, risk can be minimized. Fortunately, Kutani is very rarely faked and when faked, is faked poorly. The problem is near-perfect copies, sold as copies/reproductions, and not with intent to deceive. But once in the secondary market, it is often difficult to tell.

David Pike: How often on average do you purchase?

A Satsuma jar.

A Satsuma vase.

Examples of Japanese calligraphy.

Examples of Japanese calligraphy.

John Wocher: These days, once a month. Even when I was more avid, three times a month was rare.

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

John Wocher: Not much. Except for objects that can be used for ikebana or for practical use, she is not very interested. She questions my “plan” frequently when a new piece arrives.

David Pike: Have you ever thought about giving up?

John Wocher: Yes, only recently. Unless a really spectacular piece presents itself, I am winding down, “giving up,” so to speak. But as the collection was growing, I never thought about it.

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

John Wocher: Two to three months.

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

John Wocher: Yes, but regrets are short, except for one piece I still regret. It was a large tureen decorated by Shimizu Bizan. Really large and really spectacular. Probably the best piece by him I had ever seen. The owner contacted me offline for an appraisal and I expressed an interest it. She had an offer of $2,700 from a museum and wanted to know if it was reasonable. I offered her $3,000 for it and she mentioned that to the museum. They offered her $5,000 for it, and I told her that was reasonable. I should have purchased it.

David Pike: How has collecting helped you understand Japan?

John Wocher: I think art reflects history and culture, so porcelain can also be seen as a window into history and culture. Much like paintings, we can look backwards at the world. Many of the scenes depicted on porcelain reflect actual events. We can learn a lot about a culture and its people through art and porcelain is no exception.

David Pike: When did you start making prints? Were your first prints as influenced by Kutani as your latest prints?

One of John Wocher’s prints.

One of John Wocher’s prints.

John Wocher: My first woodblock print was in 1977. I gave up. Too hard. I didn’t make prints until 2000; actually drawings that later were printed in limited editions. Other than my unsuccessful experiment in making a woodblock, all of my prints are porcelain inspired, mostly Kutani. I do them for personal enjoyment and as stress reduction.

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

John Wocher: This is best question of all! I would like to thin out my collection, selling off all but perhaps the best 25 pieces or some similar manageable number. Don’t know how to do that though. I’d like to then give those selected pieces to my children and grandchildren in hopes that it will inspire them to learn more about history through these pieces and give them a opportunity to see the very best I could acquire. My children live in Japan, as well as my grandchildren, and the added benefit is to acquaint them with their roots here by having fine examples of Japanese porcelain to reflect on.

David Pike: What are the best places to buy?

John Wocher: Local shops, garage sales, antique fairs, major auction houses (but these tend to be expensive!). I like Yahoo.jp a lot, but I am in Japan, where it is easier to navigate the site. Often eBay will be reliable, but exercise caution. Buy from other collectors.

David Pike: What are the best places to avoid?

John Wocher: EBay can be dangerous for the beginner. Pieces are misrepresented and fakes are numerous. I hear bad things about Craigslist, but have no personal experience.

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

John Wocher: Yes. Reference books are essential. Their costs are an investment that is best done up front and not later. Next, try to specialize or collect within a relatively narrow field— pieces that you like. Visit museums, shops, the Internet sites and get a feel for quality. The beginning collector, like I was once, has big eyes and often impulse purchases on a random basis. Maybe narrow to plates or cups. Decorative versus functional. Maybe vases. In other words, think “collection” not “accumulation”—these are different. I like sa’ke flasks (tokkuri), sa’ke cups and tea cups. Within the cups, I like aka-e and those with inside calligraphy. And I use them, frequently. There is a double pleasure in appreciating them from afar and in hand being used as intended. As the collecting becomes more serious, one should avoid damaged pieces. An exception would be a spectacular or historical piece that you just can’t live without. Hairlines (fractures) are an exception, and perhaps a flea bite or two and a nicely stapled piece or a gold repair. No matter how good the repair, it decreases value, artistically and financially. Having said that, I have some. I have a set of sa’ke cups with two perfectly stapled with silver staples. Someone took the time to care for these and not throw them away. I often reach for one when I get my sa’ke out. It is the thought that counts.

I have a piece or two with a gold repair. In today’s disposable society, these are reminders of how good porcelain was treasured. However, damaged pieces should be the exception in a collection in my opinion.

David Pike: Do you have any advice to someone who has started collecting but doesn’t feel they are getting anywhere?

John Wocher: Connect with other collectors. Forums are great places. Everyone is helpful. Go to shows and exhibits; ask many questions, buy catalogs and books. Get second opinions on pieces you are contemplating.

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.”

John Wocher: The biggest challenge is balancing what you like and what you can afford. I wish, when I was here in the 1960s, when yen was 360 to the U. S. dollar, that I would have bought some nice pieces instead of beer. Looking back, I don’t regret it in the same way I don’t regret not buying 1982 Bordeaux. It would have been nice, but I just wasn’t ready. Part of collecting is to have a plan. I didn’t have one then.

David Pike: I hate clutter. That is one of my biggest obstacles as a wannabe collector. How have you dealt with that?

Several of Wocher’s pieces are displayed in a cabinet.

Several of Wocher’s pieces are displayed in a cabinet.

John Wocher: According to my spouse, poorly. I’d say that at any given time, about 200 pieces are displayed. About 20 in a cabinet where I don’t rotate the pieces, and in my collection room/area, I do rotate them periodically. That means about 200 are in boxes and stored.

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.

John Wocher: I’d say there are better ways to build wealth. But, if one buys only the best, only the rare, and only the historic, there is a chance that value will be increased. One should remember this: The successful bidder is the one who pays more than anyone else thinks it is worth.

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

John Wocher: I would have made a plan much earlier.

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

John Wocher: Absolutely. A collection is not based on size. Two or three really good pieces per year is a very good start; a very good plan once a person has narrowed down what is to be collected.

David Pike: What is the difference between accumulating and collecting?

John Wocher: Accumulating is amassing objects without a plan. Accumulating usually has a wide range in terms of types of objects and price/value. It is generally quantity over quality, and also generally does not have many high-quality pieces among a usually high number of pieces accumulated. Collections usually have a plan, are limited to a defined style/era/maker/art form. Overall, they are usually representative of that style/maker/art form and represent in many cases the best that the style/maker/art form has to offer.

There you have it. Any suggestions as to what John should do with his magnificent collection? Please leave a comment below and I will gladly pass it along.

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

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