Creatures That Kept the Wolf from the Door

29th October 2019

Fantastical metal creatures that saved the makers of samurai swords from bankruptcy are being sold at auction in Salisbury next month.

The Japanese jizai okimono are finely detailed articulated creatures, made by joining numerous hammered metal plates, which today can fetch thousands of pounds at auction, and an articulated snake last year fetched £33,750 (including premium) at Woolley and Wallis. They tell the story of the death of centuries-old skills and a time of revolutionary changes in Japan's history.

The earliest known examples of Japanese armours date from the 4th century and over the following centuries, the ruling military class encouraged the mass production of high quality ceremonial and military equipment. After centuries of warfare, Japan experienced a long period of peace during the Edo period and the Meiji Restoration of 1868 further prompted major changes in Japan’s society, as it rapidly industrialised and adopted many Western ideas and developments. The wearing of samurai swords in public became forbidden and metalworkers suddenly had to rely entirely on this side production to avoid penury. Possibly the most impressive and popular pieces are fully articulated, lifelike depictions of animals and mythical creatures – jizai okimono (translating as 'articulated object for display'). Spiny lobsters, crabs and other crustaceans seem to have been a favourite, possibly because their intricate and scaly bodies showcased the incredible ingenuity and skill of their maker.

 “It was a period of great adaptation,” said Alex Aguilar, Head of Japanese Art at Woolley and Wallis. “The more talented makers spotted that money was to be made in producing these amazing ornaments for the wealthier Japanese families, and for the tourists who were flooding to visit Japan, which had been closed to the Western world for centuries.”

The Salisbury auction house is selling a number of the articulated models in its Japanese Works of Art auction on 12th November, including a bronze spiny lobster and a copper crayfish, an unusual copper praying mantis, and a mythical iron dragon fish.

“The Dragon Fish (or Shachihoko) is a legendary sea monster which is believed to summon clouds and cause rain,” said Aguilar. “For that reason they are quite often used as roof ornaments in Japan, to protect buildings from fire. They are protector spirits and it is very unusual to see a jizai okimono depicting one”

During the 19th century, Japan's government encouraged the export of traditional craftsmanship and participated in many International Exhibitions where these articulated creatures became strong favourites. Many Western collections feature jizai okimono, and examples can still be found in numerous institutions, including the British Museum, the MET, and Tokyo National Museum.

The menagerie is expected to fetch up to £10,000 when it is sold on 12th November.

To view the whole sale please click here.

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