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photographer E-Yaji.
The Mary and George Bloch Collection: Part VII  
Sotheby's, Hong Kong, 26 November 2013: Lot 71 

Lot 71

Lot 71
Treasury7, no. 1697 (‘Netsuke Bottle’)

Ivory and greenish-brown pigment; with a concave lip and recessed foot surrounded by a flattened footrim; carved in the form of a standing boy, his head turned to his left, with an enormous, tapering-octagonal flask on his back, held across his right shoulder by a looped sash from which, on the side around to his right, two further looped sashes dangle and rise free of the body of the flask to form natural himotoshi (cord holes), the boy wearing a tasselled hat, a waistcoat, and leggings beneath short trousers, the flask carved with two panels of formalized waves on the main sides and two panels of roughened ground on the narrow sides, interspersed with plain panels; all above eight tapering rectangular panels around the base, the neck with eight further panels; the foot inscribed in running script, ‘Carved by Mitsumasa in the first year of Genji’, the ivory stained greenish-brown
Mitsumasa, probably Tokyo, 1864
Height: 6.93 cm
Mouth/lip: 0.80 and 0.72/1.52 and 1.45 cm (both oval)
Stopper: ivory and greenish-brown pigment, the thick integral collar carved with radiating lines; with integral cork; original

Eldred’s, 24 August 1988, lot 226
Robert Hall, London (1989)
Hugh Moss (HK) Ltd (1989)

JICSBS, Autumn 1988, p. 29, fig. 6
Treasury 7, no. 1697

There is an old acquisition number written in red beneath the stopper, suggesting that this was deaccessioned from an American museum, possibly having been part of the fashion for collecting Japanese snuff bottles in the U.S. from the 1860s through to the 1930s. Many of the private collections formed then ended up in museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Natural History in New York, the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore, and the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin (Beatty having moved to Dublin from New York in 1950). The number is no longer entirely legible, unfortunately, or we might have been able to read an acquisition date. The date of the bottle, however, is not in question. It is one of the very rare examples that is not only proudly signed by its Japanese carver but precisely dated. The Genji era was the last of the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603–1868), and its first year was 1864.

The name Mitsumasa was used by more than one artist, but two netsuke in the MCI that bear the name Mitsumasa are plausibly by our artist (Meinertzhagen and Lazarnick, MCI, The Meinertzhagen Card Index on Netsuke in the Archives of the British Museum, p. 547). Stylistically, he seems related to a netsuke carver by the name of Kosen Nishimoto, who worked at the same time. Kosen produced a series of netsuke depicting Fernandez Pinto with a mythical beast (kirin); they are in very similar style, with the same sort of foreign-looking clothing as worn by the youth here. This carving was actually designed to function as a netsuke. On the back of the piece (the side away from which the boy is turning his head), the free-standing loop formed by the two dangling straps provides a natural himotoshi (cord hole). Placed on a flat surface, the bottle does not stand on its own foot, as one might expect had it been made primarily as a snuff bottle (whether or not for a collector’s cabinet), but rather tips forward onto the feet of the youth holding it. Even when the piece is hung from a cord at the waist and not necessarily at any particular angle to the ground, the boy is carrying the flask conceptually: the angle of the straps is meant to tell us that the flask has been tipped to one side, onto the boy’s back (hanging plumb, they are at an angle to the axis of the tipped flask; but note also how the sway of the tassels suggests that it has just been tipped or is in motion); moreover, the boy’s left arm reaching around to the front of the bottle mimics an effort to steady the burden. This indicates that the netsuke carver saw this primarily as a sculpture to be viewed at the waist, as he was used to seeing his netsuke, and not as a bottle.

The piece may have been made initially for a Japanese snuff taker who actually wanted to use it as a combination snuff bottle and netsuke, but the hollowing suggests otherwise. Although it is capacious, the gouged-out interior has not been smoothed and polished as it should have been if the original intention had been for it to hold snuff. It is possible, of course, that it was made to function as a netsuke imitating a snuff bottle, without going so far as to actually put it to use in that capacity. It is more likely, however, that the piece was made for the same foreign collectors’ market as the other Japanese bottles; being a netsuke carver, Mitsumasa simply included a himotoshi reflexively. If so, it indicates how quickly the foreign market was being catered to after Japan was opened to foreign trade by the Kanagawa Treaty of 1854 and the Harris Treaty of 1858.


This is not the Sotheby’s sale catalogue. This is a product of Hugh Moss for the purposes of this website. For the catalogue details please refer to Sotheby’s website or request a copy of a printed sale catalogue from Sotheby’s.


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