Fine collection of Japanese status symbols comes to auction in London

As the summer draws to a close, the auction houses are gearing up for major sales again and, as we reported, Christie's is offering a large auction of Japanese and Korean art and collectibles.

However, Bonhams are not prepared to let this go unchallenged, and are set to put one of the world's most important and comprehensive single owner collections of Japanese Gentleman's accessories under the hammer in two months' time.

This private collection was formed by the late environmentalist, mountaineer, scholar and collector Edward Wrangham OBE. Influenced by his uncle W W Winkworth, who also collected Japanese works of art, Wrangham's first piece was given to him in 1936 when he was eight years old.

Considered the last of the great British collectors, Wrangham continued to add to his collection until his death last year, sourcing works of art from all over the world.

His collection, which was also published and written about by Wrangham himself, comprises over 1000 pieces of inro, netsuke and Japanese sword fittings assembled over many decades, reflecting the refinement of his passion and knowledge.

For three centuries inro and netsuke were the Japanese equivalent of the Western status symbols of a gentleman's top hat or pocket watch. An inro (literally meaning sealed case) is a traditional Japanese case consisting of a stack of small, nested boxes that were used to carry small objects such as seals, tobacco and medicines; the netsuke is a small carving in wood or ivory that keeps the inro securely closed. 

Unlike European suited dandies of the 18th and 19th centuries, Japanese men wore traditional Kimono and the inro were worn hanging down from the sash for all to see.

After humble beginnings as functional items, between the 17th-19th centuries inro and netsuke were developed by some of Japan's finest craftsmen into miniature works of art.

From the exquisitely decorated lacquer, ivory or gold of the inro case to the intricate and finely sculptured netsuke that allowed the inro to be hung from the Obi (kimono sash), these accessories became expensive works of art.

The variety of subjects depicted on inro is remarkable: from flowers, fishes and animals to scenes of everyday life, gods and goddesses and historical scenes and battles.

Although these accessories became ever more elaborately crafted, they also stood outside the strict Imperial laws that prohibited the ostentatious display of wealth such as gemstones or jewellery.

As a result, the demand for inro and netsuke increased and wearing a high quality inro where materials such as wood, ivory, precious metals, shell and coral were used for exquisite inlay was a sign of wealth and social status.

An 18th Century wooden netsuke of a dog, standing at only 3cm high, is the top lot of the sale and is estimated at £20,000-25,000. This was created by Masanao, one of the most outstanding carvers of netsuke and by looking at the charming detail it is clear to see why.

A further highlight is a four-case lacquered inro depicting a Chinese hermit beside a shelter, gazing out at a broad landscape while, on the reverse, a traveller crosses a bridge over a wide river. Signed by Toshihide, this 19th Century inro is estimated at £8000-10,000.

Red lacquer inro with Fugen Bosatsu on an elephant
Red lacquer inro with Fugen Bosatsu on an elephant
(Click to enlarge)

A 19th Century intricate four-case red lacquer inro inlaid in metal with the Japanese Buddist Deity, Fugen Bosatsu on an elephant is estimated at £18,000-22,000.

Suzannah Yip, the head of Bonham's Japanese department comments: "The collection is not only breathtaking in quantity but also in quality, material and subject matter. It is simply the most comprehensive and finest single-owner collection of inro ever to have been offered at auction."  

Neil Davey, Senior Consultant for the Japanese Department comments: "I have known Ted Wrangham since I started in the Japanese art business in the late 1950s, when I was unofficially apprenticed to his uncle, William Wilberforce Winkworth.

"At that time, he was already an established serious collector and, as I came to know him better, I realised that he was one of the most scholarly collectors of his time. I feel proud to have known him and am honoured to have the opportunity of helping to disperse, as he would have wished, his collection to other, like-minded collectors".

The collection will be sold in a series of sales at Bonhams, with the first sale taking place on November 9th 2010.


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