Do you know why some Japanese coins have holes in the center?
While the holes are purely decorative now, they did once serve a purpose. Before the Meiji period — which started in the mid-19th century — most people in Japan wore kimonos or other casual robes.
While exceptionally comfortable, kimonos and Japanese robes didn’t have any pockets (they still don’t). So anything you wanted to carry with you, you strung up on a rope or belt that you looped around.
The holes in coins were there to thread them on a cord you wore around your waist — the ancient version of a wallet.
Of course, sometimes you’d want to carry more than just coins. For that, you’d often have a pouch — and that pouch would attach to your belt using a decorative item called a netsuke.
When Japan entered the Meiji period — and men started to wear Western suits, complete with pockets — demand for netsuke fell through the floor. Many of the items were available for low prices in Europe, where netsuke were considered an artistic trinket you could get from the mostly unknown Land of the Rising Sun.
They were undervalued back then — because while netsuke might have lost their practical use, their value as art has shot through the roof.
A single netsuke can take three months to hand carve out of wood, ebony, ivory, bone or antler. And while there aren’t as many netsuke made now as there were back in the day, artisans continue to carve new ones.
That’s not including the mass-produced replicas — which aren’t nearly as valuable, or as nice, but can make a fine collectible.
But if you want a netsuke as an investment, you should get one hand-carved by a master.
The world-record price was reached recently by an 18th-century shishi — or lion dog — that went for just under $350,000.
Now, you don’t have to spend that much to get quality netsuke. Indeed — an investment-grade netsuke can be had for a few hundred dollars, though most good ones will at least break $1,000… and there’s a thriving market above $10K.
However, there is a chance for you to grab a netsuke at a large discount today. If you’re willing to take on a bit of risk, that is…
Backdating Illicit Trade?
You may have noted above the materials netsuke are made of… Traditionally, almost all netsuke were made of wood or — especially for finer examples — ivory.
As ivory bans have been put in place, netsuke have also been made with bones and antlers as a stand-in. And demand for ivory netsuke has cratered.
Which makes sense. After all, whether or not you’re even allowed to trade pre-ban ivory is a complex question, governed by jurisdiction.
In most countries, anything made of ivory before 1947 is legal to own. But in terms of buying and selling, it gets dicey after
In most of Europe, for instance, anything made before 1947 is fine to buy and sell.
In the U.S., however, you have to apply for an Endangered Species Act (ESA) exemption — which is only granted if the item is over 100 years old and hasn’t been modified since 1973 and you can prove proper provenance… including that the item originally came into the U.S. through one of 13 approved ports!
In the U.K., you have to get an art exemption as well, but the process is much simpler.
What’s more — these rules and laws are in constant flux. The last time the U.S. changed its rules, for instance, was in 2016, after enacting a stricter ban on all ivory pieces. The U.K., meanwhile, strengthened its ban to its current form just last year.
All that means buying and (especially) selling antique netsuke made of ivory can be a huge headache.
They’re the most coveted type of netsuke… partially because they hold up the best over time. And they were often finer — and more expensive — when they were originally made.
But if you look long enough… and you’re willing to put in the extra work… you can find ivory netsuke at a discount.
Of course, there is risk there. Rules surrounding antique ivory could change in unpredictable ways.
But my bet is, eventually, antique ivory will be able to be bought and sold under more normal marketplace conditions.
No one wants to support illegal poaching — but what you buy today doesn’t have an effect on the elephants that were killed in the 1800s.
And if you want to avoid the entire question — as most do today — there are still plenty of great netsuke you can buy and hold as art investments.
Just don’t expect to get a discount.
You’ll still be able to enjoy the already robust appreciation of the art — but you won’t get the cherry on top.
Editor-in-chief, Unconventional Wealth
P.S. You can’t judge value by size — as proved by netsuke today. You could easily fit a six-figure netsuke in your pocket and no one would know. (Please don’t do that — you don’t want to damage the fine sculpting.)
Do you have anything small yet precious? Something that might escape the notice of those who don’t know about it? Tell us about your favorite unobtrusive collectibles or investments at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you can, send along a photo! We always love to see the beloved collections of our readers.
Ryan Cole is the editor-in-chief of Unconventional Wealth. He’s been covering the alternative investment space for nearly a decade and writing about finance and investment for almost 20 years.
Ryan has walked the walk for years, living a very unconventional life. He’s led snowmobile tours through the mountains of Colorado, settled in Japan for five...