The Fine Art of Japanese Inro

A Japanese lacquer and Shibayama inlaid five case inro, Meiji period (1868-1912), sold at Toovey’s for £3200
A Japanese lacquer and Shibayama inlaid five case inro, Meiji period (1868-1912), sold at Toovey’s for £3200

Japanese inro were originally designed as seal baskets but were mainly used to hold herbal medicines. The interlocking compartments were held together by a cord and would have been hung from a waist band. They were often finely decorated in lacquer and Shibayama.

For more than two hundred and fifty years Japan had lived in relative isolation from the outside world until American gunboat diplomacy, instigated by Commodore Perry in 1853, opened up Japan for trade with the West. Throughout the Edo (1603-1868) and Meiji (1868-1912) periods Japan’s rich tradition of arts and crafts gave voice to a civilized nation.

Amongst these arts and crafts lacquer work was used extensively in Japan. The technique came to Japan from China in the sixth century A.D. The art of the lacquer craftsman was highly technical but their patrons’ taste for traditional designs limited artistic creativity. The popularity of the inro emerged during the 17th and 18th centuries. These new objects allowed the lacquerers a greater freedom in design and decoration as well as the opportunity to experiment technically. Exquisite artistry was lavished on inro by artist-craftsmen working for the ruling classes. Favourite subjects included figures, gardens and floral displays.

A Japanese lacquer and Shibayama inlaid five case inro, Meiji period (1868-1912), sold at Toovey’s for £3200
A Japanese lacquer and Shibayama inlaid five case inro, Meiji period (1868-1912), sold at Toovey’s for £3200

The Japanese lacquer and Shibayama inlaid five case inro illustrated here is a fine example of this artistic and technical tour de force. Measuring just 9.4cm the inro dates from the Meiji period (1868-1912) and combines the decorative techniques of maki-e with its powder gilt ground with Shibayama inlay. The high relief, finely inlaid image depicts a hanaguruma, a two-wheeled flower cart, carrying a tasselled wickerwork basket filled with chrysanthemum, peony, iris and a bough of flowering wisteria. The composition and colours of the scene depicted in carved tortoiseshell, coral, mother-of-pearl and hardstone are exquisitely conceived and worked.

A Japanese four-case lacquer inro by Koma Koryu, Edo period, with netsuke (19th century)
A Japanese four-case lacquer inro by Koma Koryu, Edo period, with netsuke (19th century)

The Japanese four-case lacquer inro by Koma Koryu dates from the Edo period (19th century) and is differently decorated. The sides of its curved rectangular body are finely worked. Employing the hiramaki-e technique the gilt chrysanthemum are raised above the maki-e ground with its gilt speckled dark brown decoration. The hardwood netsuke is carved in the form of clam shells with ivory inlaid detail and the cord which unites the interlocking compartments can be clearly seen.

A Japanese five-case lacquer inro, Edo period (19th Century)
A Japanese five-case lacquer inro, Edo period (19th Century)

The final Japanese inro illustrated dates from the Edo period. It again features chrysanthemums against a beautifully worked maki-e ground. Although lavishly decorated it is less fine than the other two inro.

Values at auction for Japanese inro of this quality range from a few hundred to thousands of pounds today.

Toovey’s Asian Art specialist, Tom Rowsell, is passionate about these pieces and can be contacted by telephoning 01903 891955 or at if you would like his advice.

By Rupert Toovey, a senior director of Toovey’s, the leading fine art auction house in West Sussex, based on the A24 at Washington. Originally published in the West Sussex Gazette.

£132,000 South Coast Discovery at Toovey’s

A pair of Chinese famille rose enamelled porcelain rectangular tea caddies
£132,000 pair of Chinese famille rose enamelled porcelain rectangular tea caddies

A pair of Chinese famille rose enamelled porcelain tea caddies, displayed on a window sill, caught the eye of a Toovey’s valuer during a routine visit to a client’s home. The caddies were subsequently brought in for sale and went under the gavel in a specialist Asian Art sale on Thursday 23rd February 2017.

These Qing dynasty caddies from the Imperial kilns were similar in shape to those made for the European export market. However, the painted blossoming branches and flowering stems accompanied by the lines of text and red seals are typically Chinese in taste, as are the profusely decorated sides with their panels of lotus flowers and tendrils. Measuring just 16.7cm in height they realised a remarkable £132,0000. Both the vendor and Toovey’s Asian Art specialist, Tom Rowsell, are delighted with the result.

Chinese jade carvings for sale at Toovey’s

Chinese jade carving of an elephant
Lot 1105: A Chinese jade carving of an elephant covered in a profusion of folds and wrinkles

The Chinese jade table screen that sold for £120,000 (featured previously) was one of the more memorable auction prices achieved at our Spring Gardens salerooms last year. Toovey’s Specialist Sales of Oriental Ceramics and Works of Art provided numerous other highlights from objects originating from China and Japan. The first Specialist Oriental Auction of 2012 at Toovey’s (and the first of the Chinese New Year) on Thursday 23rd February includes a collection of mostly 18th and 19th Century jade carvings (Lots 1105 to 1119), consigned from the estate of a lady collector, late of Banbury, Oxfordshire. The consignment includes pendants, vases, carvings, inkstones and plaques. A collection of other jades have also been consigned from other vendors.

Jade is a mineralogically imprecise term for various kinds of hard-stone, more frequently referring to nephrite (a calcium magnesium silicate) and similar jadeite (a sodium-aluminium silicate). The wide-embracing term ‘jade’ can in fact encompass over 150 different varieties of stone. The English term for what in China is called  (玉) is derived from the Spanish piedra di hijada, or ‘stone of the loins’, as it was believed to be healing to that part of the body. “In ancient times“, said Confucius, the Chinese thinker and social philosopher, “men found the likeness of all excellent qualities in jade. Soft, smooth, and glossy, it appeared to them like benevolence; fine, compact and strong – like intelligence; angular, but not sharp and cutting – like righteousness; hanging down [in beads or pendants] as if it would fall to the ground – like [the humility of] propriety; when struck, yielding a note, clear and prolonged, yet terminating abruptly – like music; its flaws not concealing its beauty; nor its beauty concealing its flaws – like loyalty; with an internal radiance issuing from it on every side – like good faith; bright as a brilliant rainbow – like heaven; exquisite and mysterious, appearing in the hills and streams – like the earth; standing out conspicuously in the symbols of rank – like virtue; esteemed by all under the sky – like the path of truth and duty” [Legge (translator): Li Ki, Book XLV.] Since Neolithic times jade has been of central importance in China. No other stone has had such a continuous relationship with humankind in our social and religious development. Centuries before the Christian era we find it arbitrarily symbolic of Heaven and Earth. It is this representation of virtue and its symbolic history that ranks jade as the most precious of stones amongst the Chinese.

Lot 1105 (illustrated above), to be offered for sale as part of the collection in the February auction, is carved from a stone of celedon green tone. The elephant is symbolic of prudence, strength and wisdom and has always been sacred to Buddhism, this 15cm long carving carries a pre-sale estimate of £1000-1500. Many of the carvings offered in the February auction are of auspicious animals, chosen for their specific symbolic meanings. The Banbury collection to be offered in Toovey’s February Specialist Sale includes Chinese works of art decorated with the ram (a symbol of kindness and patience), fish (symbols of rank and power and later, the symbol of marital bliss), Buddhistic lions (often placed at the entrance of religious buildings, and associated with upholding the law), cranes (endowed with many mythical attributes and considered the aerial courser of the immortals), deer and Lingzhi fungus (both symbols of longevity).

Further images of  jade carvings included in the collection:

(Please click on an image for description and full-view, click again for further magnification)

£120,000 Chinese jade table screen sold at Toovey’s

Chinese jade table screen

This antique Chinese jade table screen was sold by Toovey’s fine art auctioneers and valuers for £120,000. Top British and Chinese dealers descended on Toovey’s Spring Gardens rooms at Washington on Thursday 11th August for their specialist sale of Oriental ceramics and works of art. Prize of the auction was the diminutive jade screen, just over 6” wide, which dates from the reign of the Qianlong Emperor (1735-1796). Carved on both sides with landscape scenes and on one side with calligraphic text, the unassuming panel and later wooden stand were consigned to Toovey’s in a shoebox with several other items by probate solicitors after the clearance of a modest flat in Richmond. Toovey’s Oriental antiques consultant, Lars Tharp, subsequently identified the screen as rather more valuable an object than the shoebox suggested. On the day of the auction, the final bidding was left to two Chinese traders, one in the room, one bidding by telephone, who brushed aside competition from fellow dealers from China and the London specialist trade to battle it out to the emphatic hammer price, Toovey’s top result of the year so far. Further specialist sales of Oriental ceramics and works of art are scheduled throughout the rest of this year and early 2012. Visit the specialist sale page by clicking here to see forthcoming auctions, or contact Toovey’s to discuss the valuation and sale of your Oriental ceramics and works of art.