When a period of peace led to a slow-down in business for makers of samurai armour in 17th-century Japan, some turned their skills to making articulated sculptures such as this amazing dragon offered on 25 April in New York
This model of a dragon is a superb example of a jizai okimono — lifelike, articulated animal figures — and a star piece in our An Inquiring Mind: American Collecting of Japanese & Korean Art sale on 25 April, a part of Classic Week at Christie’s in New York.
Created in the last decades of Edo-period Japan (1603-1868), the dragon is made from iron, with highly detailed features and yellow eyes of shakudo (copper and gold alloy). Its spine is constructed from numerous hammered plates that allow its body to bend from neck to tail; likewise its mouth, tongue, limbs and claws are also moveable.
‘For me, what makes this dragon so special is its intricacy,’ says Takaaki Murakami, Head of Japanese Art at Christie’s in New York. ‘The craftsmanship in the head and body is richer than in most other dragons of the same period. It’s also made up of more parts than other jizai okimono, which allows it a greater range of movement.’
There is much speculation surrounding the origins of jizai okimono. The earliest known artefact is a dragon by Myochin Muneaki, dated 1713, that now resides in the collection of the Tokyo National Museum.
The Myochins were a distinguished family of samurai armourers. As military conflict in Japan abated in the early 17th century, and samurai warriors became courtiers, bureaucrats and administrators, the armourers were compelled to adapt their skills.
The Myochins employed the craftsmanship honed in forging armour plates to create the moveable scales and limbs of jizai okimono. Some of their most popular creations include insects, snakes, crabs and dragons. By the late 19th century the figures were desirable collectables, and many were exported to a Western market passionate about Oriental art.
The iron dragon is signed on the underside of its jaw by Myochin Munenobu. Little else is known about the dragon, except that it has come from the same private collector who acquired it from Christie’s New York in 1990.
In addition to the iron dragon, other jizai okimono offered in our 25 April sale include a lobster, a crab, a prawn with flexible legs and feelers, a cricket and a stage beetle. In September 2012, an iron articulated model of a dragon fish from the Edo period sold for $458,500 at Christie’s in New York, against a high estimate of $80,000.