Matthew Barton Ltd’s highly anticipated twice-yearly auctions of European and Asian Works of Art are a draw for collectors of sought after objects from all corners of the globe; his next two-day sale on the 6th and 7th June showcases the prevailing quality and singularity of pieces in a variety of disciplines.
In the Japanese section of the Asian Works of Art Auction on the 6th June, there will be a collection of 195 mask netsuke assembled by retired entrepreneur and Japanophile Peter E. Müller of Switzerland. The high-quality collection demonstrates the diversity of Japanese masks in mostly wood, with some lacquer, stag antler, pottery, iron and one amber. It has been catalogued and curated for the auction by Max Rutherston, specialist in Japanese Netsuke & Works of Art to Matthew Barton Ltd. Max worked with Mr Müller on a privately printed book about the collection. Only twenty copies were published, of which one is in the auction. The estimates range from £200 to £6,000.
Throughout the history of Japan, masks have been used in dance, theatrical performances and religion, representing humans, deities, demons, ghouls or fantastical creatures according to the dramas in which they appear. Masks are an important type of netsuke and are usually copies of ancient masks, but many were also made from the carver’s own imagination.
Peter Müller’s encyclopaedic collection of mask netsuke has several examples from the well-known Apprentice Deme house, including pieces signed Deme Uman who was one of the most prolific, as well as one of the most skilled of the Deme netsuke carvers. Over the 18th and 19th century, the Deme family established the practice of producing perfect replicas in miniature of the Noh honmen masks made in Muromachi Dynasty of 1336-1573.
Other carvers in the collection include Kanō Tessai, who at the very end of the 19th century dedicated himself to the study of ancient Gigaku masks used in the dance-dramas first brought to Japan in the 7th century, reproducing in careful detail not only the different types, but also their surfaces. The Müller collection has several top examples of these, such as Karura (Garuda).
A rare copy of a Gyōdō mask – a ceremonial mask used in religious processions particularly popular in the Heian period (794– 1185), made by Naito Koseki to the order of a British collector in 1913 is also in the collection. There is a large head of a Nio, a temple gate guardian, by Naito Koseki in the British Museum.
The remarkable Kokeisai Sansho, active in the first 30 years of the 20th century, was capable of producing faithful copies of the ancient masks as well as dreaming up the dreadful ghouls so beloved (and feared) by the Japanese.
The collection also includes masks by carvers often highly regarded for their katabori carvings, such as Masanao of Kyoto. ‘Shojo’ is one of only four masks recorded by this most important of netsuke carvers.