Many years ago I gave a talk about the earliest Dutch collections of netsuke, as part of the comprehensive collection of Bunsei-Period Japanese artefacts held at the National Museum of Ethnology, Leiden. At that time, I had not really asked myself the question how and where Blomhoff (1779-1853, Opperhoofd at Deshima 1817-23), Fisscher (1800-1848, various positions at Deshima 1820-29) and Siebold (1796-1866, physician at Deshima 1823-29) made their collections of netsuke in the 1820s.
Recently, however, I came to realise that Blomhoff (10 netsuke) and Fisscher (40 netsuke) most likely assembled their groups of netsuke during the court journey of 1822, adding a few items made of porcelain that could easily be procured from shops at Nagasaki. As for Siebold, his group of 49 netsuke – omitting here a few items that came with tobacco pouches or inro – was most likely brought together at some curio shop, maybe in Nagasaki, maybe in Osaka, and offered to him as an ensemble. In a notebook used to keep track of all his acquisitions, Siebold records “A box of artworks in ivory, antler and various animal teeth, wood and porcelain” (Ein Kistchen mit Kunstarbeiten von Elfenbein, Horn und verschiedenen Thierzahne, Holz und Porzelein).
For Siebold, the interest was most likely as a group of objects that would go into the Sections IV-A and IV-B in the systematic catalogue of his ethnographic collection, Products from the Animal World, sub a: For arts and crafts, and Products from the World of Plants. Indeed, they are nine ivory netsuke, three made of deer antler, two in boar’s tusk, one in pot whale, nineteen in wood, and seven in porcelain.
A most interesting aspect of these three collections is the considerable group of unused netsuke, bought as new items in the shops, so we can finally see what a netsuke without its nice ‘patina’ looks like. At the same time, these can also help us get some idea how much use and handling these would need to get such a nice ‘patina.’ This goes for at least 30 netsuke in the case of Fisscher and for 36 in Siebold’s collection of netsuke. As for the items in the Siebold collection that were actually used, these are seven of the nine netsuke in ivory, three of these with signatures (an ox signed by Shūzan, a dog with a boar’s leg by Mitsu, and a Chōki by Shū/Hide), two out of three in stag antler, and four out of nineteen in wood — none of the porcelain ones.
Then there is also another group of ivory carvings – not netsuke – representing the complete set of twelve animals of the zodiac, carved in ivory by Otomitsu or Otoman.* This was apparently a special commission from Siebold, probably made just before he was placed under house arrest at Deshima as a consequence of the Siebold Incident when he was found in the possession of some maps of the northern outskirts of Japan after the storm of September 17/18th, 1828.
It seems that Otomitsu started work on this set in December 1828 (Bunsei 11, Tenth Month, in the Japanese calendar), at least that is the dating on the figure of the Rat, the most likely subject to start with, being the first of the Twelve Zodiacal Animals. Almost a year later, the set was completed and on October 30th, 1829, Siebold got the invoice for “Carvings by an artist from Chikuzen (present-day Fukuoka) representing the Zodiac – Koban 32,5” (Schneidewerken van een kunstenaar uit Tsikuzen verbeeldende den dierenkring – Kobang 32,5).
For Otomitsu, one koban would buy him his daily portion of rice for one year, or alternatively 43 litres of sake, or 750 pieces of sushi, so probably quite a decent price for him and his family and assistants to live on during the time involved in making this set – he would also have to buy the necessary ivory. As for Siebold, the ‘32,5 Kobang’ would be the equivalent of DFl 390, slightly more than half a month’s salary for Siebold. As for the earlier mentioned ‘box of artworks,’ the price he paid was 250 Kobang, or something like DFl 3.000,00 at the time, not really a good buy, I would say.
*At present, the museum has only six of this set left, the other half was stolen, so you know when you see an Otomitsu/Otoman carving of a Tiger, a Dragon, a Goat, a Monkey, a Dog, or a Boar.