Japan’s long, rich history of fine and decorative art dates back thousands of years. Japanese art and antiques that have survived from centuries past include samurai swords, scrolls, prints, painting, netsuke figures, and earthenware vases. Today, these items are prized for their historical significance and unique aesthetic.
Prices for Japanese art and artifacts are driven by a niche but loyal market. Collectors choose pieces for their cultural relevance, evidenced by the inclusion of Japanese works in most major museums. In recent years, the popularity of contemporary Japanese cultural trends like anime have generated a more widespread audience for the country’s rich art history and a competitive market for contemporary Japanese artists.
A Brief History of Japanese Art
The earliest known art objects in Japan date back to the first human habitation in the area by the Jomon and Yayoi settlers, around 1100 B.C. Objects from this period include miniature figurines known as dogu, which are elaborately decorated clay storage vessels, bronze bells, and copper weapons shaped in humanoid forms.
During the Asuka and Nara periods, which lasted from roughly 500 to 700 A.D., continental Asia began to influence the art and culture of Japan. As a result of cultural cross-pollination between China, Korea, and Japan, the first Japanese Buddhist sculptures appeared during this time period. Subject matter and formal qualities of works produced also saw a shift in focus. Japanese painters began to depict landscapes, court scenes, and battles, which were directly influenced by Chinese society. Japanese artists also transitioned to black and white compositions from the bright color palettes used before the introduction of other Asiatic cultures.
Art in Japan flourished during the Edo period, which lasted from the early 17th century to the mid-19th century. It was during this time that Ukiyo-e and woodblock prints emerged. These colorful, layered images often depict beautiful women, kabuki actors, and natural landscapes. The most famous practitioners of these printmaking styles were Katsushika Hokusai and Utagawa Hiroshige. As European trade with Japanese ports expanded in the mid-19th century, artists’ experimentation with flat planes, asymmetry, stylization, and vibrant color greatly influenced the work of European artists in the 19th century and 20th centuries.
Japonisme, a French term for the study of Japanese art and artists, is apparent in the works of many European Impressionist and Modern artists. Japanese artifacts, including kimonos, painted scrolls, and woodcuts, appear in the paintings of William Merritt Chase and Edouard Manet. Japanese prints also inspired the paintings of many Post-Impressionist masters, including Edgar Degas and Vincent Van Gogh. Though widely lauded for its impact on modern art, this movement has also been met with criticism for promoting cultural theft.
Throughout the 20th century, Japan produced many notable artists. These include photographers such as Kansuke Yamamoto and Hiroshi Sugimoto, painters Leonard Tsuguharu Foujita, Yayoi Kusama, and Takashi Murakami, and sculptors like Ruth Asawa and Shio Kusaka. The movies of Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa enabled the world to understand the powerful aesthetic of Samurai culture.
Post-war and contemporary Japanese art is especially sought after in the current art market. The artworks of Takashi Murakami and Yayoi Kusama, in particular, continue to increase in value as institutions around the world recognize their bodies of work. Both have solo retrospectives in 2017 at the MCA Chicago and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, respectively.
Types of Japanese Art & Antiquities
Buyers and collectors seek a number of unique pieces in styles that fall within the following broad categories, ranging from antiquities to contemporary art:
- Scrolls and calligraphy
- Ink paintings and drawings
- Paintings on silk, canvas, and paper
- Woodblock prints
- Funerary statues
- Buddhist figures
- Porcelain wares
- Bronze and enamel serving dishes, plates, and bowls
- Hardwood pieces
- Softwood specimens
- Lacquered and carved tables
- Painted screens
- Altar tables
- Samurai swords and armor
- Fuchi kashira: ornamental fittings for Samurai swords
- Tsuba: hand guards on Samurai swords
- Hibachis, or small cooking stoves
- Okimono figurines, or ornamental and decorative pottery or bronze dolls
- Tessens, or traditional fans
- Kimonos, or loose robes worn as formal garments in Japan
- Netsuke, or miniature sculptures typically made of wood or ivory used to store money and tobacco
Building Your Collection
If you want to begin collecting Japanese art and antiques, the following types of works are a perfect place to start:
- Netsuke: generally carved of wood or ivory, these small, intricate objects were both ornamental and utilitarian, commonly worn from the 17th to the 19th century. These decorative objects would hang from the sash of a man’s kimono, which did not contain pockets for storage, and were often sculpted to depict gourds, animals, mythological creatures, and other beings.
- Paintings and drawings: this broad category spans several centuries of Japanese history. Works on paper from the 19th and 20th centuries can be found at surprisingly modest prices.
- Imari: Japanese porcelains like Imari, a style of porcelain characterized by a palette of blue, white and orange, are amazingly intricate and can still be purchased at affordable price points.
- Modern and contemporary prints: Prints from Ukiyoe woodblocks to contemporary lithographs are available in a style to suit every sensibility and budget. Their authenticity can often be easily confirmed and their accessible price points provide a great way to begin collecting Japanese art.
For established collectors and those whose budgets allow, , consider exploring the following areas of Japanese art:
- Rare Samurai swords
- Tsuba, Fuchi kashira, and other sword accessories
- Gilded artworks and objects forged from precious metals
- Older Buddhist bronzes and cloisonné
- Hardwood furniture
Tips for Buying Japanese Art
1. Buy What You Like
As no market is 100% certain, the greatest piece of advice for new collectors is to buy what you are drawn to aesthetically. Purchasing objects first and foremost because you enjoy their beauty ensures they will always retain their inherent value in your home.
2. Prioritize Quality
Like any investment, buying art involves some degree of risk. One smart strategy to mitigate this risk is to buy the highest quality objects available. In any market, there will always be collectors and buyers seeking out the best examples of any given object. Thus, iconic objects in perfect (or near perfect) will be more likely to retain, and possibly increase in value over time. Request a condition report or any other existing documentation prior to purchase.
3. Carefully Read Descriptions
When acquiring work through an online gallery or auction marketplace like Invaluable, the descriptions will often explain preexisting condition issues that inform the value of the work. If a description uses vague language or the word “-style” as a qualifier (“in the style of Hokusai”), the seller will not be obligated to refund your money if doubts arise surrounding its authenticity. Furthermore, unless you are familiar with the seller’s reputation, avoid buying without a refund policy in place.
4. Know What You Are Buying
Familiarize yourself with artworks of interest and develop expertise. In order to ensure that you are getting a good deal on a work of art, it is important to understand what comparable artworks have sold for, as well as any market trends and condition issues that may affect its value. If you have questions or do not feel that you have all of the relevant information required to make an informed purchase, seek out the expertise of a specialist.
There are a number of additional factors that can affect the value of Japanese art. These factors include materials, condition, provenance, and authenticity.
Collectors of Japanese art should be aware of the import laws and regulations surrounding commonly used materials in artifacts from antiquity. Such materials include:
- Certain hardwoods
- Era-specific ceramics
Ivory has been used for centuries as a surface upon which to carve; however, increasing criticism surrounding the poaching of elephants and illegal importation of ivory over the past century has resulted in the disappearance of ivory from major auction sales. It is important to ensure that any antique ivory present in items is in compliance with legal regulations. The factors that go into this consideration include the age and type of the ivory, and the date that it was imported to the U.S.
Similar regulations exist for other rare materials like Jade and certain kinds of endangered hardwood, including mahogany. These restrictions have helped to bolster the market for other objects carved from non-restricted wood species and other materials, as artists and consumers alike look for alternatives.
2. Condition and Display of Quality
The better the condition of an artwork, the more value it possesses. Condition issues vary depending on the material of the object in question. In some cases, these condition issues arise from “inherent vice”- flaws that are related to the constitution materials themselves, like paint loss and craqueleur or hairline “cracking” in the case of paintings.
Other times, these issues arise from conditions related to the environment in which they have been housed. These include UV damage from sustained exposure to sunlight as well as water, fire, and smoke damage. While a good conservator can often minimize the impact or visibility of condition issues, some antiques are often more highly prized in their original condition. Furthermore, “invisible” repairs or any kind of restorative work could also compromise an item’s worth.
Provenance is a written record of the history of an object that tells who has owned it in the past, where it was purchased, and when it has been sold. Provenance often significantly increases the value of an object as it offers the most concrete and valid proof of its authenticity. This means that detailed record-keeping and documentation are important aspects of maintaining any collection. By confirming the chain of ownership of an object, one can confirm that the artwork is genuine.
4. Dating and Authenticity
Determining the authenticity of antique objects, especially Japanese paintings, drawings and scrolls can be problematic with objects that date back hundreds or thousands of years. With objects of this age, it is rare to have any record of provenance, let alone a complete one, which makes the presence of artist’s signatures and mark and period engravings (indicating the date of creation). These kinds of insignia also generally serve to make the pieces more valuable, as they give the potential collector greater faith in their legitimacy.