Mini, yes, but netsuke make bold statement

What are netsuke?

At one time, they served as fashion accessories for Japanese men in the 17th century. They wore these decorative pieces to suspend items - such as purses - from the sashes of their kimonos.

Today, a quick search on eBay pulls up more than 1,400 objects, ranging from a $9 monkey to a Japanese swordmaker for $450. But they probably aren't the real thing. Expect to pay up to six figures at an auction house for some authentic netsuke.

It might sound like a high price to pay for these tiny sculptures - most no bigger than your pinky - but netsuke collecting is serious business.

The Netsuke movement "has taken place not so much within the context of museums and curatorship, but very much within the marketplace and with the collectors and dealers," says Joe Earle, guest curator for "Netsuke: Fantasy and Reality in Japanese Miniature Sculpture," now at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, through March 10.

Visitors can view the fantastically detailed carvings, ranging from a playful, elongated dancing fox, to a mythological Chinese lion.

The exhibition is arranged by themes in glass cabinets: Fabulous Beasts and Demons (mythical beasts); Gods, Heroes, and Myths (gods and deities); Daily Life (sumo wrestlers); Flora and Fauna (plants, reptiles, and fish); and 12 Zodiac Animals (rat, monkey, dragon, dog, etc.).

"Netsuke are interesting, in part because of the limitations on their design," says Ryushi Komada, president of the International Netsuke Carvers Association in Chiba, Japan. "They need to have a hole for the cord, and they must be designed in a round shape so as not to tear clothing."

So, what qualifies as a netsuke? "You have to be more than small and made out of an ivory-like substance or wood to be a netsuke," Mr. Earle says in a phone interview from London. "It has to do with the ability to miniaturize, to encapsulate the vitality of an animal...."

A netsuke that stands out for its remarkable detail, Earle says, is "Rat Licking His Tail" because it is "incredibly life-like. But there's a degree of exaggeration. It's never fussy or obtrusive. It's very much a work of art, right down to where the hole is carved [underneath] next to the signature."

Who were these artists who created netsuke with chisels and knives? "They were certainly not the highest people in society," Earle says. "We know that they had other jobs as well. One was a painter and book designer as well as a netsuke artist; others were dollmakers or makers of buddhist statuary."

Many netsuke artists are still active in Japan, but there are also people around the world carving these mini marvels. In the early days, artists would use real ivory, boar's tusk, and boxwood. Artists today use fossilized mammoth tusk and vegetable ivory from seeds of an ivory-nut palm. Turtle shell and amber is used for decorative inlays and details.

Earle says he is unconvinced that Netsuke started off as simple miniature toggles that gradually became more artistic. "They are first and foremost very large and quite brash status symbols. Netsuke right from the very beginning were about showing off."

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