In response to a huge demand for Japanese traditional craft driven by the Japonism movement in Europe and America during the second half of the 19th century, the new Meiji government of Japan embarked on a program of active encouragement of the production of such goods for export. This program was called the Industrial Promotion Policy (shokusan Kogyo) and provided much-needed support for craftsmen who had found their livelihood diminished due to the demise of the samurai class.
As a result of this export policy Japanese art objects were presented to a significantly larger audience through the country’s participation in the world expositions in Europe and America, with the Japanese displays considered a resounding success in San Francisco (1871), Vienna (1873), Philadelphia (1876), Paris (1878, 1900), Amsterdam (1883), New Orleans (1885), Barcelona (1887), Chicago (1893), Venice (1897), St. Louis (1904) and London (1910).
The okimono (lit. “placed thing”) or a decorative object, was an integral part of these Western exports which would showcase a carver’s or metalworker’s skill. Ivory okimono became popular in the West as they satisfied a taste of the exotic, whilst dovetailing neatly with the Western tradition of decorating houses with sculptures of various sizes. Although okimono of around 25-50 cm high were exported in large quantities, okimono of the scale of the present lot are rare, with other known examples being made for world expositions or as important or imperial gifts.
The present lot is similar in both style of carving and scale to an example in the State Museum of Oriental Art, Moscow, which was a gift from the Japanese Emperor Meiji (1852-1912) to Nicholas II (1868-1918), timed to the latter’s coronation day in 1896. In 1891 aged twenty-two, the then crown prince of the Russian Empire, Nicholas II visited Japan as part of an extensive tour of Asia conceived by his father, Tsar Alexander III, partly as a means of broadening the future emperor’s education. However whilst returning to Kyoto after a day trip to Lake Biwa in Otsu, an assassination attempt was made on his life by a Japanese policeman who was part of his protection retinue. The “Otsu incident” caused great embarrassment to the Japanese authorities and it is believed that the gift of the ivory eagle may have been an attempt by the Emperor Meiji to make amends for the incident.
Another similar model of an eagle was collected by Henry J. Heinz (1844-1919) the German-American entrepreneur who founded the H. J. Heinz Company. An influential collector of Japanese art and important patron of the Carnegie Museum of Art, Heinz purchased the large eagle in Japan and subsequently gifted it to the museum in 1913. With an impressive wingspan and hundreds of individually carved feathers similar to the present lot, it is noted that at the time of the gift in 1913, the Heinz eagle was valued at $5000.