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A market for baskets: Interview with New York dealer Sebastian Izzard

The difference between Japanese and European taste in the field of Japanese art

New York

The private dealer in Japanese art, Sebastian Izzard, has sold to many museums, including the Smithsonian's Freer and Sackler Galleries, and Japan's Chiba City Museum. As a mere nine-year-old, he was drawn to 19th-century Japanese prints but later turned to graphic design as a profession.

Only at the age of 22 did Mr Izzard enter the University of London School of Oriental and African Studies and go on to polish his command of Japanese with a year in the country, complete a thesis on Utagawa Kunisada's portrait prints and earn a doctorate.

While at university, he worked at Christie's part time. From 1980 to 1997, he headed Christie's New York Japanese department; then in 1998, he founded his own private dealership. He now works out of what insiders call the city's second Fine Arts Building, which also houses dealers Lawrence Steigrad and Michael Goedhuis.

Every March, Mr Izzard holds an exhibition at Dickinson Roundell.

The Art Newspaper: We tend to think of this area as being very niche-oriented, with collections solely of inro or snuff bottles. Can you tell us about the current scope and size of the collector base?

Sebastian Izzard: While , many collectors do focus on a particular area, there are others such as Mary Burke (Asia Society and Metropolitan Museum of Art benefactor) who collects right across the board and provides an inspiration to others.

Today, there are three or four collectors who are following in her footsteps and building impressive collections including Japanese painting, prints, swords, lacquer and netsuke. A total of 30 to 40 collectors are acquiring museum-quality objects.

Another way to quantify the interest is that in my early years as a private dealer,the mailing list for my catalogues numbered 500. Today, it is 1200.

TAN: With collecting more generalised, how has the market evolved?

SI: Twenty years ago, top level collecting was a rarity. With the 80s boom, just about any collector here was priced out of the market as the Japanese would not permit others to buy anything and we lost an entire generation of collectors. In the 90s we saw the market becoming stable. Objects suddenly became less expensive. For example, 17th-century screens that sold for millions of dollars in the 1980s would come back on the market a mere eight years later and sell for only $300,000 or $400,000.

Now is a particularly good time to buy and 18th- and 19th-century works, and Noh robes are especially undervalued. America is largely the market now and if you ask dealers in London where the majority of their clients are, the answer is the US.

TAN: At auction, we are seeing more Japanese material.

SI: Now, unfortunately, in Japan even the large institutions are in trouble. Only last month, the Manno Museum of Osaka consigned Edo period Noh robes to Christie's New York. (see report, p.48)

TAN: Can you describe Japanese compared to American taste?

SI: While European taste was influenced specifically by the wares coming out of late 19th-century Japan, here, in the US, the greatest impact on taste was World War II and the occupation of Japan. Senior curators and scholars such as Sherman Lee had early exposure to Japan and its arts as GIs.

To some degree, American taste is more educated than that of Europeans. Consider the Boston Museum of Fine Arts’ collection, with its concentration on swords, Edo period paintings and netsuke; it is encyclopaedic,while the material at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is more selective. Much of the latter’s material was collected after World War II.

Another example of taste differing here vis à vis Europe, is the interest in stoneware rather than tea ceremony ceramics, dating from the 15th and 16th centuries on. The most expensive are 16th- and 17th-century and a Koetsu tea bowl can be in the millions of dollars. Various tea ceremony exhibitions at the Japan Society and Asia last spring further sparked interest. In Europe, there is not that much understanding of this area.

TAN: You were the only American dealer in the inaugural Biennale des Arts Asiatiques last month in Paris, as well as holding an exhibition at the Galerie Yoshii. Can you tell us about the French market and your reasons for participating?

SI: I went to France as an experiment to encourage the market there. Since the 19th century, it has been in the doldrums. Unfortunately, the timing of the fair (21 to 25 September) coincides with Asia week here. But my colleagues in Paris told me before the fair that Europeans, Scandinavians and Russian would be among the clients The dealers there also advised me to stress the decorative element: flashy red lacquer furniture, cloisonné and sculpture are sought after.

TAN: What about scholarship? Has there been important progress in any field? SI: Here there has been an entire generation of scholars dating from the war, and as a result, knowledge of Japanese art is at a higher level: for example, of the Shijo and Nanga paintings of the Edo period. There are also four or five major active collectors in this field in the US alone. TAN: In this country, decorators eagerly seek out baskets and the like. What do you feel about this?

SI: I think part of the appeal of the decorative baskets and contemporary ceramics is that they go quite well with contemporary architecture, which has, of course, been influenced by traditional Japanese architecture. I have people wanting one or two truly striking objects, but that is not really collecting. As for baskets, demand for these is widespread;. I know of an Argentine planning to open a museum devoted to baskets and there are major collectors here for them.

TAN: Is there any one particular institution that will become a centre for the study of Japanese arts?

SI: The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts will become a centre for trade objects. There is really only one major collector in that area, Ned Johnson of Fidelity Investments. He has a tremendous collection of export wares and he has one of the truly great netsuke collections. Salem, a traditional port for the China trade, is a natural to become the centre for trade material.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Who are those basket collectors?'