Auction Records for Netsuke Keep Falling

Netsuke Records Continue To Fall:
Toyomasa Tiger not a Hare With Amber Eyes

How much of the current upsurge of interest in Japanese netsuke can be credited to the highly engaging biographical novel The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal might be debatable but certainly cannot be denied. (If you have not yet read the book make it a priority for summer reading.) Previous newsletters reported on record prices reached for netsuke and inro at recent international sales. Consolidating Bonhams position at the top of the Japanese art auction scene are the results of their London November sale, over 2 million pounds, and a new world record price of 103,250 pounds sterling for a Toyomasa netsuke – a tiger with horn eyes. Against an estimate of 35 -40,000 pounds, the work broke the record for Toyomasa of 85,250 pounds achieved only last year in November.

This is a spectacular study of a tiger (see images below) embodying all the qualities that make netsuke so appealing- energy, power, skill and the intimacy of miniature sculpture. An unusual subject for artist Toyomasa (1773-1856) and quite large at 4.5 cm, it has characteristics of the powerful carving of master works by Tomotada and Masanao and reminds one of some of the famous screen paintings of tigers – Ito Jakuchu (1716-1800) and Mayuyama Okyo (1733-1795) for example (see more images below).

The tiger was not native to Japan and images, pictorial and sculptural, were inspired by Chinese paintings and imagined by Japanese artists from animal skins. The tiger is second only to the dragon in Buddhist lore. In Daoist lore the tiger was said to represent dark forces and embody Yin energy but transported to Buddhism it became, like the dragon, an embodiment of Yang energy, and in its ‘nobility of …form, beauty of colour and proportion, grace…supremacy of… strength, undaunted courage… a fitting symbol of the power, grandeur and glory of the Buddhist faith.’ Ball, K Animal Motifs in Asian Art.


Naturally these qualities were also associated with the spirit of the samurai and there are many legends involving tigers. One of the most popular in art is the story of Sanbusho, also known as Gyoja Busho, of the Heroes of the Suikoden who fought and killed a tiger with his bare hands. A beautifully painted powerful image of this legendary event has returned to us. First sold in the 1980’s, it is an excellent rendition in scroll format and framed.  Illustrated above it is currently available in the gallery. Price is $4900 (AUD inc gst) . Contact

Netsuke of a Tiger by Toyomasa. 19th Century (Photo courtesy of Bonhams)

Netsuke of a Tiger by Toyomasa. 19th Century (Photo courtesy of Bonhams)

Tiger by Ito Jakuchu. 18th Century

Tiger by Maruyama Okyo. 18th Century

Videos with Edmund De Vaal discussing The Hare With Amber Eyes :