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Collecting Guide: 5 things to know about Meiji-period art

A primer on the Japanese art of 1868 to 1912 — an era of profound change which saw the end of the shogunate and an opening up to Western ideas — illustrated with works in the Pavilion Sale of Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art  in October

In 1868 the restoration of imperial rule in Japan brought the Edo shogunate to an end, and marked the start of the Meiji era, which would last until the death of Emperor Meiji in 1912. During this brief period the country experienced radical social and political shifts, and a host of reforms which propelled Japan — closed to international trade for more than 200 years — from feudalism into modernity. 

The profound impact of the country’s new engagement with foreign cultures is evident in many areas of Meiji-period art, which reflected a new era for the nation and its developing relationship with the wider world. 

On 2 October in Hong Kong, Christie’s Pavilion Sale of Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art will include Meiji-period pieces for the first time, underlining the cross-cultural links between Chinese and Japanese art. The works on offer include finely-crafted cloisonné, metalwork, lacquerware and ceramics. 

A gold and silver inlaid iron incense burner, late 19th century. 6¼  in (15.9  cm) wide, Japanese wood box. Estimate HK$260,000-350,000. This lot is offered in the Pavilion Sale                                                on 2 October 2017  at Christie’s in Alexandra House, Hong Kong

A gold and silver inlaid iron incense burner, late 19th century. 6¼ in (15.9 cm) wide, Japanese wood box. Estimate: HK$260,000-350,000. This lot is offered in the Pavilion Sale on 2 October 2017 at Christie’s in Alexandra House, Hong Kong

A dried-bamboo vase, Meiji-Taisho period, late 19th-early 20th century. 9¾  in (24.7  cm) high, Japanese wood box. Estimate HK$20,000-40,000. This lot is offered in the Pavilion Sale on 2 October 2017  at Christie’s in Alexandra House, Hong Kong

A dried-bamboo vase, Meiji-Taisho period, late 19th-early 20th century. 9¾ in (24.7 cm) high, Japanese wood box. Estimate: HK$20,000-40,000. This lot is offered in the Pavilion Sale on 2 October 2017 at Christie’s in Alexandra House, Hong Kong


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  • Production of swords and armour gave way to new artistic forms 

'The Meiji era brought Japanese art to the international stage for the first time,’ says Takaaki Murakami, Head of Sale, Japanese and Korean Art at Christie’s in New York. The participation of Japanese artists in European exhibitions, and the establishment in 1907 of the official Bunten exhibition in Tokyo — which sought to replicate the French Salon (the official exhibition of the French Academy of Fine Arts) — introduced Japanese audiences to a wide range of artistic styles.

A gold kettle and cover, early 20th century. 5½  in (14  cm) wide, 587g, Japanese wood box. Estimate HK$1,000,000-1,500,000. This lot is offered in the Pavilion Sale on 2 October 2017  at Christie’s in Alexandra House, Hong Kong

A gold kettle and cover, early 20th century. 5½ in (14 cm) wide, 587g, Japanese wood box. Estimate: HK$1,000,000-1,500,000. This lot is offered in the Pavilion Sale on 2 October 2017 at Christie’s in Alexandra House, Hong Kong

The Meiji period saw 'a rapid expansion of artistic forms, mediums, subjects and styles,’ explains Murakami, ‘a stark contrast to the relatively limited production — mainly swords and armour — commissioned by samurai patrons in the Edo period.’

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  • As Western painting influenced the traditional, a new style was born

In the medium of painting, the Meiji government promoted the yoga — or Western — style, sending Japanese students to study abroad and ‘opening the door for European artists to come to Japan to share their knowledge and technical skills,’ says Murakami.

An example of yoga painting Harada Naojiro (1863-1899), Family at Toshogu Shrine. 29½ x 23⅜ in (75 x59.4 cm) . Sold for $171,000 on 10 November 2000  at Christie’s in New York

An example of yoga painting: Harada Naojiro (1863-1899), Family at Toshogu Shrine. 29½ x 23⅜ in (75 x59.4 cm) . Sold for: $171,000 on 10 November 2000 at Christie’s in New York

In turn this eventually gave rise to a revival of nihonga  painting, which stressed a return to traditional Japanese mediums, themes and techniques. Still, even nihonga  reflected the influence of European aesthetic conventions, underlining the depth of cross-cultural links in this period. Ultimately, much of Meiji art was marked by a blending of cultures, and an innovative interchange of old and new.

An example of nihonga painting Yokoyama Taikan (1868-1958), Pine trees and cranes . 67 x 151⅛ in (170.2 x 383.9 cm) each 	 (2). Sold for $267,750 on 20 March 2013  at Christie’s in New York

An example of nihonga painting: Yokoyama Taikan (1868-1958), Pine trees and cranes . 67 x 151⅛ in (170.2 x 383.9 cm) each (2). Sold for: $267,750 on 20 March 2013 at Christie’s in New York

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  • Western ideas were embraced, but the influence of Chinese art endured

Chinese art, too, was a notable influence on Meiji-era production. ‘Throughout the centuries there have always been many parallels between Chinese and Japanese art. Connoisseurs can easily find elements in Meiji Japanese art that reflect traditionally Chinese materials, techniques or themes,’ the specialist continues, ‘most notably a keen attention to plant or animal life.’ Many Meiji-era pieces ‘feature motifs such as dragons, cranes, fish or rabbits, whose auspicious connotations are deeply rooted in Chinese culture.’

A crystal sphere on a silver wave stand, Meiji period, late 19th century, stand signed Zoroku Zo. 20⅞  in (53  cm) wide, 11¾  in (29.8  cm) high, Japanese wood box. Estimate HK$500,000-700,000. This lot is offered in the Pavilion Sale on 2 October 2017  at Christie’s in Alexandra House, Hong Kong

A crystal sphere on a silver wave stand, Meiji period, late 19th century, stand signed Zoroku Zo. 20⅞ in (53 cm) wide, 11¾ in (29.8 cm) high, Japanese wood box. Estimate: HK$500,000-700,000. This lot is offered in the Pavilion Sale on 2 October 2017 at Christie’s in Alexandra House, Hong Kong

A rise of interest in antiquities among Japanese collectors spurred cast-metal craftsmen such as Hata Zoroku, a master in the lost-wax technique, to focus on the replication of Chinese antiquities. Zoroku, who studied metalwork in the studio of Ryubundo in Kyoto, was renowned for his expertise in Chinese bronzes, and often authenticated archaic Chinese bronzes in Japanese collections.

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  • The skills and techniques of Japanese craftsmen had no equal in the West

Video: An iron articulated model of a snake, signed Muneaki (Ishiwaka Masuburo), Taisho period, early 20th century. 39⅜ in (100 cm) long, Japanese wood box. Estimate: HK$350,000-450,000. This lot is offered in the Pavilion Sale on 2 October 2017 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

With the disappearance of the samurai class, metalworkers began to create objects for the sole purpose of display. The government encouraged innovation and attention to artistry, resulting in the development of a wide range of new techniques, including combining metals with enamel. 

The fine detail in these works was beyond the capability of their Western counterparts — and is hardly matched in present-day Japan. Exhibitions in both Japan and Europe brought Meiji-period metalworkers high praise, and their creations were soon highly sought-after by collectors around the world.

An elaborate large bronze and mixed-metal hanging vase, Meiji period (late 19th century). 50 in (127 cm) long. Sold for $339,750 on 20 March 2013  at Christie’s in New York

An elaborate large bronze and mixed-metal hanging vase, Meiji period (late 19th century). 50 in (127 cm) long. Sold for $339,750 on 20 March 2013 at Christie’s in New York

One of the greatest of these sculptors in metal was Muneaki (Ishikawa Musaburo), who was particularly skilled at forging small iron parts to create realistic articulated figures. 


An enamel and soft-metal-inlaid iron incense burner, sealed Koichi Shin (Takasaki Koichi), Meiji period, late 19th century. 8¼  in (21  cm) high, original wood stand, Japanese wood box. Estimate HK$450,000-550,000. This lot is offered in the Pavilion Sale on 2 October 2017  at Christie’s in Alexandra House, Hong Kong

An enamel and soft-metal-inlaid iron incense burner, sealed Koichi Shin (Takasaki Koichi), Meiji period, late 19th century. 8¼ in (21 cm) high, original wood stand, Japanese wood box. Estimate: HK$450,000-550,000. This lot is offered in the Pavilion Sale on 2 October 2017 at Christie’s in Alexandra House, Hong Kong

Another name to look out for is Takasaki Koichi, who developed a unique technique of applying enamel directly on an iron body — a distinctive characteristic of his artistic style. Koichi exhibited a pair of silver vases with applied enamel at the International Exposition in Paris in 1900. Today, however, only very few pieces by Koichi are known to exist.


A hammered silver kettle in elephant form, Meiji-Taisho period, early 20th century. 8½  in (21.6  cm) long, Japanese wood box. Estimate HK$300,000-400,000. This lot is offered in the Pavilion Sale on 2 October 2017  at Christie’s in Alexandra House, Hong Kong

A hammered silver kettle in elephant form, Meiji-Taisho period, early 20th century. 8½ in (21.6 cm) long, Japanese wood box. Estimate: HK$300,000-400,000. This lot is offered in the Pavilion Sale on 2 October 2017 at Christie’s in Alexandra House, Hong Kong

The elephant teapot above was hammered from a single sheet of silver, and is a brilliant example of the highly specialised techniques developed during the Meiji era. Fashioned at the beginning of the 20th century, its lid features a mischievous monkey, hitching a ride and looking rather pleased with itself. 

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  • The making of bamboo ware was elevated to an art form

Although the making of baskets from bamboo has a long tradition in Japan, towards the end of the 19th century it began to be recognised as an art form — basket makers such as Hayakawa Shōkosai and Tanabe Shinjō signed their work and were recognised as creative artists. During the Meiji period these masters and their apprentices branched out to create hats, bags and small pieces of furniture that were prized for their harmonising of technique and natural beauty.


A bamboo basket for flower arrangement, signed Chikuhosai Kore Zo, Taisho-Showa period, 20th century. 23⅜ in (59.4 cm) high, Japanese wood box. Estimate HK$30,000-50,000. This lot is offered in the Pavilion Sale on 2 October 2017  at Christie’s in Alexandra House, Hong Kong

A bamboo basket for flower arrangement, signed Chikuhosai Kore Zo, Taisho-Showa period, 20th century. 23⅜ in (59.4 cm) high, Japanese wood box. Estimate: HK$30,000-50,000. This lot is offered in the Pavilion Sale on 2 October 2017 at Christie’s in Alexandra House, Hong Kong

The basket above (dated to the Taisho period that followed the Meiji period) is signed by Chikuhosai Kore Zo, the elder brother of Tanabe Chikuunsai I (1877-1937), one of Osaka’s most important bamboo artists in the first half of the 20th century. Chinese-style bamboo baskets such as this intricately formed yet elegantly simple example were intended for use in sencha  tea ceremonies.