THE Great Room at famous Christie's international auction house in St. James's, London, was hushed. Yet another great art collection, assembled over years and dispersed in a day, would find its culmination in world acclaim - and high prices. Three hundred fifty pieces from the Raymond and Frances Bushell collection of Japanese netsuke were being offered to fellow collectors and dealers from around the world. Expectations were high. This was one of the finest collections of its kind in the world.
The netsuke was a small but essential part of Japanese dress in the days when the kimono was worn, especially during the Tokugawa period (1615-1856).
Since the kimono was made without pockets, all the small necessities of life, such as money and writing materials, were carried in a sectioned box called an inro, suspended from a cord worn under the kimono sash. The netsuke was needed to draw the cord tight around the waist.
``A Japanese would own several netsuke, just as a Westerner owns several neckties,'' says Mr. Bushell, an American lawyer, who has become one of the world's leading authorities on the subject. ``He would choose his netsuke to fit his ensemble, according to the occasion, the season, or even his mood.''
The netsuke craftsmen carved their pieces mainly from ivory and wood, but occasionally from stag antler, bamboo, porcelain, lacquer, or metal. Not for nothing are the Japanese famous for their attention to the least detail.
The functional purpose of the netsuke imposed severe limitations on the craftsmen, not the least of which was the need for two connecting holes through which the cord could be threaded.
``They were in daily use,'' says Bushell. ``If they were too fragile they wouldn't suit their purpose. A true netsuke should be compact, strong, and powerful.''
The design needed to be compact, with no element sticking out to catch in the sleeve. Delicate detail had to be cleverly protected from harm. One fine example of this in the collection is carved with a bat, whose sturdy wings encircle and protect its young.
Nor could the netsuke be allowed to become too large. Anything from one to two inches in height is normal, although they occasionally stretch to six or seven.
The practical limitations, however, did not present insuperable difficulties to the ingenious craftsman. He developed the netsuke into a miniature form of sculpture, which is now seen as a microcosm of Japanese taste.
Subjects for decoration were drawn from everyday life as well as the many myths and legends of the country. Animals, birds, flowers, and even food abound, all keenly observed - and nowhere is the humor of the Japanese more clearly in evidence than in the netsuke.
A single netsuke was sold for 110,000 (about $200,200) in London earlier this year. Bushell predicts that $50,000 will soon be as common for a netsuke as it has become for a Japanese woodblock print. One reason for the rise in value, he says, will be the market appearance of Japanese collectors, which has not yet happened.
Like many a collector before him, Bushell began his collection almost by accident. He arrived in Japan in 1945, the captain of a sea-air rescue boat attached to the First Corps, United States Army.
On a visit to a gift shop in Osaka, he saw, was captivated by, and bought his first netsuke. Soon afterward, encouragement was to come in the form of Frederick Jonas, the Anglo-Japanese author of the first book in English on the netsuke.
Mr. Jonas also worked as a stevedore, and the two met when Jonas ordered the US Army captain to move his boat. Because of Bushell's reluctance to take orders from a civilian, ``discussions'' followed, during which their common interest emerged, and Jonas proved to be an inspiration to the budding collector.
Bushell stayed on after the occupation to practice law and to develop his collection. He also developed his historical knowledge of the netsuke and their creators and has written many books and articles.
``I have an enormous advantage in living in Japan,'' Bushell says.
``I can talk to old boys who remember the Meiji customs [the Meiji period lasted from 1868 to 1912], and dealers who as boys knew some of the artists. They can tell me not only what woods were used, but where they came from. I could never discover this anywhere else.''
His collection, ``Like Topsy, just grew,'' he says. The 350 just sold are only the beginning. There are 1,000 to be sold in all. Two more sales are to come, one probably in New York and another in London.
Mr. and Mrs. Bushell are retaining about 600 choice specimens, which are on long-term loan to the Los Angeles County Museum.
Eventually, they plan to donate them to the museum as part of the Pavilion of Japanese Art, which collector/philanthropist Jo Price is giving and endowing with his own collection.