The figure is an unusual subject in netsuke, representing Ryujin, the dragon king of the sea in human form. In Japanese mythology, he is believed to control the tides and was considered the grandfather of the first emperor. Typically he appears holding a sacred, tide-controlling jewel or, as is the case with this figure, carrying a jar of coral branches.
Yet it was the mysterious identity of the maker that captivated Bandini when she came across the netsuke. Crisply carved and tightly detailed, the figure includes the signature Mondo to the underside of the foot, a name usually associated with the creator of early 20th century, Shuzan-style netsuke, which are defined by vividly coloured detailing.
“In my experience as a netsuke dealer the biggest thrill is not the sale of a piece but rather the discovery of a piece – that magical moment, that collectors will also know well, when your hand closes on a netsuke that you know is going to be special,” Bandini said.
A long line of sculptors
She determined after further research that Mondo was actually the art name used by a long line of sculptors of Buddhist statuary dating back at least as far as the 1750s. Her initial association when she saw the name had therefore been the 32nd Mondo, who died in 1917.
However, the 33rd Mondo, known as Tekisui, signed his pieces with a cursive, curled second character, similar to that of the Ryujin figure.
Even though his works generally resemble those of his predecessor, Bandini concluded that the netsuke is likely the work of the 33rd Mondo. This one-off, well-executed fine carving, so different from his typical output, was probably made as a special commission.
The unusual figure made it a coveted piece for collectors, Bandini told ATG, and she sold this example for a five-figure sum. However, she remains on the look-out for more information about the line of Mondo carvers and hopes that someone will come forward with another example of his work.