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A Fine Lacquer Panel Depicting Lobsters
These lots have been imported from outside the EU … Read more The Remarkable Sakamoto Goro The Tokyo dealer Sakamoto Goro (b. 1923), born on the day of the Great Kanto earthquake, retired in 1978, but he is well known to colleagues in the Asian art trade, and to collectors and museum curators worldwide. Until just a few years ago, he continued to travel to auctions in New York, accompanied by his daughter Miya, who serves as his interpreter. Equipped with six years of elementary-school education, the young Goro spent more than nine years as a fishmonger’s apprentice in Yokohama. Scrappy, feisty, energetic and single-minded in his dedication to make it to the top, Sakamoto tried his hand at black marketeering after the war, then moved on to become a dealer in second-hand clothing and, eventually, antiquities. He opened his first shop in Tokyo in 1947. Sakamoto learned the art trade by trial and error, not from the customary route of going up the ranks as an apprentice or inheriting his father’s business. Instead, in the immediate postwar years, he sought out advice and guidance from many of the established art dealers, who were impressed by his pluck and doggedness. Soon, he was traveling the world from Cairo to Brooklyn in search of treasures (fig. 1). By 1972, when he was willing to go for broke, he paid a world-record price for a Yuan-dynasty Chinese porcelain wine jar at Christie’s in London, and was acknowledged as one of the foremost dealers in Japan. He has always contended that the price he paid that day was in no way too high. ‘Good things are expensive,’ he wrote. ‘The business of art dealers is to find these gems and reveal them to the world. Almost immediately following that sale, prices collectors were willing to pay for Chinese ceramics rose dramatically.’ Sakamoto’s Fugendo Gallery in the Nihonbashi district of Tokyo sold Japanese, Korean and Chinese art to museums, dealers and collectors around the world. He credited his acumen in searching out fine objects made of lacquer to his friendship with Sir John Figgess (1909–1997) (fig. 1). Figgess, who became a director of Christie’s, London, was a collector of Chinese ceramics with an unerring eye for quality. He was also prescient in his early focus on lacquer. A British liaison officer at MacArthur’s Occupation headquarters in Tokyo, he subsequently served as a military attaché and then as a counselor to the Foreign Office in the British Embassy in Tokyo. He first visited Sakamoto’s shop around 1952, asking for help in forming a collection of lacquer. That unusual request spurred Sakamoto to devote himself to its study, as well. Their collaboration and connoisseurship resulted in the 1966 purchase by the British Museum of a rare thirteenth-century Korean lacquer sutra box inlaid with mother-of-pearl. Sakamoto sold early Chinese lacquers to the Tokyo National Museum and donated others to museums in Taiwan and Beijing. He sold superb red-lacquer Negoro wine bottles dating from the fifteenth century to the Suntory Museum of Art, Tokyo, and to Koyama Mihoko (1910-2003), the heiress to the Toyobo textile business, whose collection is now in the Miho Museum in Shigaraki. Sakamoto closed Fugendo in 1989 and built himself a retirement home on the northern outskirts of Kyoto. The cold winters proved daunting, and he now lives in the hills above Odawara, known for its neighboring hot springs and milder climate. He still attends Tokyo auctions. In 2002, the Nara National Museum opened the newly built Sakamoto wing to house the 380 Chinese archaic bronzes he had donated. For the unique story of the rags to riches struggle of this remarkable man, see Sakamoto Goro, Eight Parts Full: A Life in the Tokyo Art Trade, edited by Julia Meech and Jane Oliver, a special issue of Impressions (2011), the annual journal of the Japanese Art Society of America (www.japaneseartsoc.org). Julia Meech Please refer to Asobi Catalogue 5546 for figures. The Property of Goro Sakamoto An Important Exhibition Panel by Shibata Zeshin (1807-1891)
A Fine Lacquer Panel Depicting Lobsters


A Fine Lacquer Panel Depicting Lobsters
Signed Gyonen Hachijuni o Koma Zeshin [An old man in his 82nd year, Koma Zeshin], Meiji 21st year (1888)
The framed wood panel decorated in gold, silver and red in various lacquer techniques including sabiage, hiramaki-e, togidashi-e and takamaki-e on a black lacquer ground with a pair of Ise Ebi [spiny lobsters] scrambling onto a rocky outcrop beneath waves breaking against the shore, with tomobako inscribed Meiji niju san nen, Dai san kai Naikoku Kangyo Hakurankai, Myogi Itto sho jusho, Danshaku Iwasaki Yanosuke kyuzo, Shibata Zeshin Meihinshu shozai [First prize for exquisite skills award in the third Domestic Industrial Exposition, 1890, former collection of Lord Iwasaki Yanosuke (see fig. 1), published in Shibata Zeshin Meihinshu]
96cm. x 105.6 cm.
Lord Iwasaki Yanosuke
Goke Tadanori, ed., Bakumatsu Kaikaki no Shikko Kaiga - Shibata Zeshin Meihin shu, (Tokyo, 1981), no. 3, preparatory drawing no. 4.
Myogi Itto Sho [the First Prize for Exquisite Technique] at Dai san kai Naikoku Kangyo Hakurankai [the Third Domestic Industrial Exposition], Ueno, Tokyo, 1 April-31 July, 1890
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Lot Essay

The long-lived lacquer artist Shibata Zeshin (1807-1891) was one of the elite group of craftsmen schooled in the fashions of the Edo period who made the great leap from the dictates of the feudal society into the Age of Enlightenment and Westernization in Japan in the Meiji era (1868 -1912).

He was apprenticed at the age of eleven to the great inro artist Koma Kansai II (1767-1835) from whom he learned the traditional techniques of makie. When he was sixteen he went to study under the Maruyama-Shijo painter Suzuki Nanrei (1775-1844), and in 1833 received from Nanrei who called him by the familiar name Reisai, the Names Zeshin and Tanzan, and the art name Rensai. Through Nanrei Zeshin had met Okamoto Toyohiko (1773-1845), who was to greatly influence his painting style. Zeshin also for some years worked with and taught the ukiyo-e artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1862). In 1840 Zeshin became highly acclaimed with his painting of the Ibaraki-doji, a female demon who had been terrorizing people by the Rashomon gate. Escaping clutching her own demon arm which had been cut off by the Heian hero Watanabe no Tsuna. The vivid and frightening picture is said to have influenced the later work of Kuniyoshi and others. Zeshin became a prolific painter of popular subjects and was hugely popular with the Edo townsfolk in Edo period Japan. His light-hearted and vivid depictions of everyday Japan, her custom, and legends were among the earliest art to find favour in the West after the Imperial Restoration. But it is as a lacquer artist that Zeshin is perhaps best known, and for which his art was acclaimed at the great expositions both in Japan and overseas in his last decades. His diverse work encompassed the Shijo, and Rimpa schools, and the Chinese-inspired work of Ogawa Haritsu, or Ritsuo (1663-1747). He introduced the technique of painting on paper with lacquer to give an impression of richness and three-dimensionality. He created and perfected lacquer in simulation of Rimpa-style lead inlay (sahari-nuri), of red sandalwood (shitan-nuri), in simulation of iron rust (sabi-age), and the inlay of various materials, extending the range of surface textures which had been introduced by Ogawa Haritsu (Ritsuo), and notably (seigaiha-nuri), the depiction of sea waves by combing the lacquer before it had hardened.

His patronage by the Imperial Household was firmly established when he made a lacquered riding crop bearing the chrysanthemum mon for the Emperor Meiji in 1872. And in 1875 he was appointed as one of the artists enabled to examine and advise on the preservation of the lacquer works in the 8th century Imperial repository of the Todaiji temple, the Shosoin. He was also commissioned to paint doors in the apartments of the Imperial palace. In 1876 he was made an examiner for the newly established Kangyoryo [Bureau for Industrial Promotion under the Ministry for Home Affairs]. In the following year at the first Domestic Industrial Exposition Zeshin won the Ryumon-sho [dragon prize] with a lacquer panel depicting a rustic hut in fields, which was bought by the Imperial Household.

In 1891 Zeshin was appointed a Teishitsu Gigei-In [Imperial Artist], and became a professor of the University of Fine Arts in Tokyo together with his fellow Imperial Artist Kano Natsuo (1828-1898), with whom he collaborated on a number of joint works, like the tanto mounting with waves depicted in seigaiha-nuri in the collection of the Nezu institute, Tokyo. His pupil Ikeda Taishin (1825-1903) inherited his style and was himself made an Imperial Artist some five years following Zeshin’s death.

During his last years he made a number of great pictorial plaques using lacquer on wood like the present piece, with all the lacquer skills he had absorbed and devised. His first major piece in this format was probably the prize-winning panel with Mount Fuji viewed from Tagonoura, which was shown at the 1873 International Exposition in Vienna. The present panel on offer which is now in private hands once belonged to the second president of the Mitsubishi Financial Group. Iwasaki Yanosuke (1851-1908). The panel was exhibited in 1890 at the Third Domestic Industrial Exposition at Ueno, Tokyo, where it was awarded the Myogi Itto Sho [First Prize for Exquisite Technique].

The most similar example with lobsters was bought by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, Fisheries, Economy, Trade and Industry in 1888, and exhibited at the Expositione Universelle de Paris in 1889, receiving the Gold Medal, but this was lost in the Taisho earthquake of 1923.

The third known panel of the same subject is one of four important panels in the Khalili Collection, all of which are illustrated in Joe Earle (ed.), Meiji no Takara – Treasures of Imperial Japan, (London, 1996). It is apposite to list them briefly here they represent a unique collection of Zeshin’s framed panels in both number and quality. The Japanese Imperial Collection contains three comparable pieces, one of an agricultural hut among fields, one of a silver vase, and one of a bamboo pavilion.

The Khalili panels are:

Plate 27. An irrigation channel with a float with tied straw and a Shinto paper offering illustrating the Shinto Minakuchi ceremony. (29.5 x 62.5cm). This was made to the commission of Count Sasaki Musashi in 1882 when Zeshin was eighty.

Plate 28. Study of a pair of Ise Ebi [spiny lobsters] tossed among waves by rocks, with a mussel cast up by the waves (32 x 119cm).

Plate29. Two ducks and a drake in shallows beneath a tree (60 x 90cm).

Plate 30. A boat with rice bales and bird-scare rattles moored under a tree (49 x 77cm).

The present panel is of the same subject as Khalili 28 with some differences in the lacquer treatment and technique, but on a somewhat larger scale focusing on the lobsters, and with less emphasis on the great sea wave. Both panels show the whole range of Zeshin’s masterly lacquer techniques and his sense of vibrancy and movement, giving life both to the lobsters and the sea itself. Although treatment of the waves and rocks show some differences, these must reflect Zeshin’s different perspective of perhaps the same pair of lobsters in a changing environment.

Victor Harris, Keeper Emeritus of Japanese Antiquities, The British Museum.

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