From the Worthologists’ Files: A Sumida Vase

One of the advantages of being an appraiser is the sheer volume of incredible things one comes across on a weekly basis. Not all are hugely valuable, antique, rare or even all that sought after. Many times their value is only sentimental, but they often come with priceless provenances. Our Worthologist file cabinet is a treasure chest of such items– appraisal requests from our clients ranging from stuffed aardvarks to folk art zithers, all of which I’ll cover here in this column.

According to our Worthopedia, comparable examples to this Sumida vase are selling in the $250.00- $350.00 range.

The owners of this strange little piece in the photo above had this to say about it: “This is about a 7 inch vase with carving inside a large cavity in the side of it. I took it to an art gallery and was told it was a Ming and it was priceless, but another said it was Japanese. Cannot read the the bottom but does look Chinese. It is signed on front of vase, but is very hard to see. We bought it at a sale that mainly included 1950’s household stuff and they didn’t know anything about it, can you help?”

This Sumida bowl sold for $225 in June 2017.

The second gallery was correct in determining this vase is Japanese; it is an example of Japanese Sumida Pottery made for the export and tourist market. Very few of these pieces predate the late 1800’s and were made into the 1930’s. This colorful ware was made for export to the West and is usually heavy and covered with figures in relief. Most pieces are everyday objects such as tea pots, vases, and mugs. This distinct type of pottery got its name from the Sumida river running near the Asakusa pottery district near Tokyo. The style of applied figures on a surface with flowing glaze was invented about 1890 by the Seto potter Ryosai I, who worked in Tokyo from about 1875 to 1900.  Pieces like this are often embellished with glazed plaques with hand written signatures or general good luck symbols. A great number of the pieces are probably the work of a single pottery of Inoue Ryosai I (1828-), Inoue Ryosai II (born c. 1860), and Inuoue Ryosai III (1888-1971), who moved the manufacturing site to Yokohama in 1924. After the move to Yokohama, more colors, like orange, were added to the wares. The later pieces also have an unglazed background. 

This Ban-ni signed Sumida Japanese cup sold for $275 in January 2016.

Sumida pottery can be found in all kinds of shapes imaginable. It is heavy, sculpted and usually has applied three-dimensional figures. The most common characteristics are items whose upper half (or less) is partially glazed with a flambé glaze or glazed with two or more colors in a splashed application. Often, the glaze has run, creating curtains or droplets. Some pieces are entirely glazed, while others are bisque. The applied figures range from plants, landscapes, a wide range of humans, and more. Many scenes on Sumida pottery depict fables from Japanese folklore. The animal most often seen is the monkey. The monkey is a common figure in many of those fables because of their human-like actions of caring for the young, stealing and interacting with one another in a community.

This Meiji Sumida Gawa pottery piece signed Ishiguro Koko sold for $275 in January 2017.

The marks can be found on the base or side of the pottery, or on a white tile affixed to the piece. Over seventy different marks are known. The marks are inscribed in kanji; however, not all pieces are marked. Pieces can be found that were marked with paper or a foil label which has long since been removed or worn off. Values for these high relief vases are currently still quite modest; according to our Worthopedia, comparable examples to the one found by our client are selling in the $250.00- $350.00 range.

Mike Wilcox, of Wilcox & Hall Appraisers, is a Worthologist who specializes in Art Nouveau and the Arts and Craft movement. He can be reached through his website

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