You want a bargain in Japanese art? Look for it anywhere but in Japan.
When Kimio Koketsu, president of Ohya-Shobo, needs a print for his 122-year-old woodblock shop in Tokyo, he often hunts for it overseas. Japanese artists who are not well-known by Europeans and Americans, he says, are still real bargains. "I once bought a print in the U.S. by Kiyochika Kobayashi [1847-1915] for $95 and sold it for $950 in Japan." Hiroshi Fukuda, a specialist in ceramics who has run an antique shop in the capital for more than 60 years, looks abroad, too. He bought a Satsuma vase--Satsuma was once a southern province, known for its pottery and earthenware--for $600 in the States and found a Japanese collector willing to pay $2,000. "My colleagues who buy in the U.S. say they can sell the stuff for two and a half to three times more in Japan," he says.
Who knew? Along with the precise method of forging samurai swords, one of the best-kept secrets of Japan is that great bargains can still be had in Meiji-era (1868-1912) crafts--if you buy them outside the Land of the Rising Sun. The prints, ceramics, ivories, metalwork, cloisonné and lacquerware made during this period are among the technically finest ever produced. Many were created for export to the West, starting with the Paris World's Fair in 1867. For years, because they were seen as "the Japanese image of what Westerners wanted from Japan," such work was considered "kitschy or grotesque," says Toshiyuki Okuma, keeper of Japan's Museum of Imperial Collections. No longer.
Particularly prized is antique metalwork, much of which was melted down during World War II for the military machine. In the late 19th century unemployed samurai armorers made ornamental dragons, snakes and fish--with linked scales and movable arms, legs, tongues and eyes. Such exquisite works, if you can find them, might run $10,000 and up.
Ivory sculptures are also very difficult to find in Japan. Meiji artisans excelled at carving, articulating each hair on the head of a monkey figurine, every feather on a bird. For $100 or less you can still pick up a netsuke, a tiny carved toggle often used to secure purses or hold tobacco pouches (both Western introductions). A big caveat, though: There are plenty of fakes and modern Chinese copies. Look for natural wear, caused by purse strings, in the holes of carvings.
More plentiful are Meiji-period woodblocks, which can run as little as $50 apiece. Long considered the ugly stepsisters of works from the Edo period (1603-1867), such prints were sometimes later used to wrap fish. But their subjects can be arresting--from news events and crimes of passion to portrayals of Westerners through Japanese eyes (think Madama Butterfly ). With their liberal use of garish, imported red dye, these works could never be mistaken for the classical style of Ando Hiroshige, say, or Kitagawa Utamaro. But there are charming prints by Chikanobu Toyohara, who looks back at Japan's history with a modern eye, and by Kunichika Toyohara, who captures the stormy moods of actors in the Kabuki theater.
This reporter has occasionally dipped into artistic arbitrage during a 20-year career of reporting from Japan. Among the best places for bargains: shops in Portugal and Holland, which conducted trade with Japan long before most other countries, and Chile--where Japanese ships docked for supplies on their way round the Strait of Magellan before the construction of the Panama Canal. But there are still deals to be had in out-of-the-way shops even in large and expensive Western cities. A vase bought for $50 recently from a store in lower Manhattan brought $200-plus worth of antiques--a pre-Meiji teacup and a miniature erotic carving among them--back in Japan.
Copyright © 2004 Forbes.com