One of the most eagerly anticipated sales of netsuke to come to market in recent years did not disappoint with bullish prices and an auction record achieved at Bonhams New York (27.5/26/20/14.5% buyer’s premium).
The single-owner sale offered on December 16 came from the private collection of the Miami ophthalmologist Dr Joseph Kurstin (1933-2021), a major name in the world of netsuke collecting.
Born in St Louis, Kurstin first encountered the small sculptural objects, which were once used by Japanese men to secure belongings to the sash of their kimonos, in 1958 while visiting an uncle.
The gift of a $9 ivory netsuke figure from his uncle that followed sparked a passion for Japanese carving that would last the rest of his life.
“One of the nice things about this art is you can handle it. That’s how it gets its patina”, Kurstin told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune in 2011.
For over 40 years he travelled around the world looking for distinguished netsuke, amassing some 800 pieces, elements of which he loaned to major museums in North America and Japan.
The jewel of his collection was the legendary Meinertzhagen kirin, a carving of a mythological animal, the whereabouts of which was unknown for decades until he eventually located it in London.
However, the select 61-lot sale of the Joseph and Elena Kurstin collection at Bonhams did not feature the Meinertzhagen kirin, nor any other piece made of ivory (as has become the practice for prominent dealers and major auction houses, such are the cultural sensibilities and regulations these days).
Instead, it focused on his 18th and 19th century Edo period wood netsuke.
Among the major themes were mythical subjects and legends from Japanese folklore, animals, deities, and religious figures in addition to netsuke by sought-after artists such as Masanao of Kyoto – for which Kurstin’s group by the Kyoto master was renowned – Tametaka of Nagoya, Naito Toyomasa, and Seiyodo Tomiharu.
The London based netsuke dealer Max Rutherston, who was present at the sale, described Kurstin as “one of the greatest netsuke collectors of his time, passionately engaged in the subject, with distinctive taste, and a man who always enjoyed sharing his collection with afficionados”. He added: “Bonhams was no doubt quietly confident that the sale would be successful, but one wonders if they knew to what extent?”
Boosted by the pedigree provenance and, with ivory disappearing, the increasingly competitive market for high-quality wood netsuke, many lots outstripped their estimates to rack up a $1.3m (£1.08m) total with a 93% sell-through rate and a sold by value rate of 100%.
A record for any netsuke at auction was achieved for an 18th century Kyoto carving of the rare and legendary horned kirin surfing a wispy cloud (as reported in ATG No 2574). The 4in (10cm) high miniature masterwork had last sold as part of the Betty Jahss collection in 1991.
According to Rutherston, it had a few condition issues; one finger had been replaced, as well as the tip of another and the cloud formation had previously been separated from the figure in more than one place. Nonetheless, the netsuke had “a presence rarely found” and the consensus among specialists was that it was an unsigned work by the master carver Sanko.
With two bidders determined to have it, it soared over its conservative $15,000-20,000 guide to bring $350,000 (£287,000). The previous high for a netsuke was the £210,000 bid for an ivory shishi at Bonhams in London as part of the Harriet Szechenyi Collection in 2011.
£1 = $1.21