Japanese Collectibles Everyone Should Know - Thomaston Auction
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May 1, 2022

Japanese Collectibles Everyone Should Know

Far Eastern countries have always had the most recognizable, memorable and long-lasting art forms in human history. It’s no wonder that in today’s modern world, China, Japan and South Korea are the most prominent countries represented in the arts, media, fashion and cosmetic industry.

In regards to the auction houses and antique stores, Japanese arts and historical collectibles aren’t often in the forefront, especially with the insurmountable popularity that China has. But Japanese artists and enthusiasts do have an edge in the auction game, and that is in regards to their smaller ornamental pieces.

Since the early 1600s, Japan has made their mark in Asian art and culture, and for those collectors, scholars, interior designers and enthusiasts, these popular traditional art forms are a must in any vocabulary arsenal.


The most popular of all collectibles of Japanese origin are the netsuke. A netsuke (NET-ski) is a small, carved object that has both functional and aesthetic purposes. Since 300 years ago, men have suspended pouches, pipes, and other items on a silk cord tucked behind their obi. These hanging objects are sagemono. To stop the cord from slipping through the obi, the netsuke was attached. Altogether, along with an ojime (sliding bead), allowed men to use this as an external pocket.

Now, netsuke are mainly collected for its aesthetic over functionality, as many come in forms of nature, deities, legends, animals and more, often made from different types of stone, metal, wood or bone. Out of all items to be listed below, these are the most prized of all Japanese creations.

An example of a netsuke that we’ve sold was this 18th century tiger form for $1,500 in our 2021 Autumn Majestic auction.


The okimono is another Japanese carved miniature of great popularity, though not as much as the netsuke.

During the Meiji period, with the installation of pockets in traditional kimonos and rapidly changing art forms with the international market, netsuke carvers turned their attention towards okimono as another source of income.

Okimono are a decorative piece, placed in an alcove of a Japanese home, representing Japanese habits and mythology.

Okimono were often carved out of wood and ivory, and the most appealing okimono for Japanese art collectors are those created from traditional artists or schools, as they have chisel marks that hold great value, much like the brush strokes in oil paintings.

A noteworthy okimono we’ve sold was this 17th century ivory figure of a sitting woman, which sold for $3,500 in our 2021 Autumn Majestic auction.


Without an inro, there’s no netsuke. An inro is a decorative case that is suspended from the obi. This was used as an external pocket until later kimonos were designed to have them. Inro often carried identity seals, medicine for travel, tobacco or other small items.

By the time the Meiji Period was blossoming, the functionality of inro was no longer necessary, and they were then turned into an artistic collective piece.

Inro are often made from ivory, washi paper, wood or metal. During a brief time in the Edo Period, inro were often used as a symbol of power.


You have probably recognized an obi without knowing its name, as it’s part of the traditional garments of Japanese clothing. An obi is a sash that’s tied around the waist, often coming in many colors, styles, patterns, and adorned in knots and accessories.

When worn, obi can identify a person’s status, personality and emotion. Obi are often made from silk, cotton or wool. The existence of obi in traditional garb can be dated as far back as the Muromachi Period.

While we don’t see these often in auction houses, some obi are woven in such an adorned and ornamental way, it can be even used as textile art, like this obi with 24k gold thread we sold for $1,400 in our 2021 Splendor auction.


Woodblock prints are another iconic and popular art form in Japanese culture, with so much fascinating history behind them all.

Woodblock prints have existed as far back as the 7th century in China, but in regards to Japanese prints, these were often used to publish books at Buddhist temples in the 12th and 13th centuries.

However, the Edo Period was when woodblock prints flourished into what it is now known for. These prints famously depicted the Ukiyo-e, the floating world.

For woodblocks, cherry wood was the most popular to use, as they were easier to handle and cut. It also retains some of the original pigment after being used for a print, and can be displayed as a secondary art piece.

Japanese prints are susceptible to fading, so collectors and curators should always preserve these priceless art pieces underneath pH-neutral folders.

Learn more about woodblocks in our auction, the Art of Japan. WOODBLOCK PRIMER VIDEO.


Finally, there are the elegant scroll paintings, a favorite among interior designers and homeowners.

Scroll paintings are often made on silk or paper, either in the form of handscrolls or hanging scrolls. Through the spread of Buddhism, Zen imagery expanded the art form of scroll paintings to depict secular landscapes that promoted peace, and often these pieces were changed out in regards to the seasons.

An example of scroll paintings we’ve sold in the past includes this pair of silk scroll paintings from the late Meiji Period, which sold for $1,900 in our 2021 Splendor auction.

Now that you have a broader understanding of some popular Japanese collectibles, perhaps you find yourself enveloped in a newfound love of Japanese art and culture! Why not embrace that and decorate your home or business with some of the aforementioned art pieces, or even find some decor examples we’ve sold in the past?

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Kaja Veilleux, ME AUC902
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