Collecting. It is a disease. Granted, it is often a lifelong dance of warmth and madness, not unlike a narcotic addiction I imagine, though I was lucky to early recognize my collecting gene and figured that any dalliance with illegal substances would be an undoing. So I didn’t. And perhaps God knew my predilections as well, and made me poor so that I could not indulge my collecting passion on a grander scale. Nevertheless, I am always searching, hoping, and on lucky occasion, even finding and purchasing a bauble or piece of art that thrills my heart and soul. And I collect many things: native art primarily, such as carved items, molas, kachinas, and the like. But probably my most favored addition is to the netsuke. I could sit and look at them forever, handle them (if allowed), and dream of owning them. I have only a few, but they are special to me, particularly one given to me by my mother not much before she passed, a knickknack that she had discovered while hiking in the Appalachians at some small shop. But my very first netsuke I discovered in a flea market stall, a wooden bear, lightly worn with nice patina, for $40, which for me then was a substantial sum. And I was smitten.
It is this same compulsion that De Waal seems to get at in his The Hare with the Amber Eyes (2010), though the story he tells is more one of a wealthy Jewish family that also tells the story of Jews in Europe from the 1800s into the anti-Semitic rise of Nazism and the destruction of so many lives and fortunes. It is partly a biography of a family, starting with Charles Ephrussi, as well as personal memoir, especially a chronicle of the infection (although I mean infatuation) of collecting, and the search for information on his family’s collection of 247 exquisite netsuke. I know it is not a good quality, because I envy him his collection and storytelling ability. He blends art history, culture, politics, juicy gossip, familial love and pride, even, as he follows the collection from Paris to Vienna, and describes the individuals who remarkably managed to keep the collection whole. Even down to the gentile family maid who in the midst of German raids of the rest of the family’s magnificent prizes of art and literature, manages to ferret away the carvings and then return them after the war. True, some will be fascinated by the life of wealth, or horrified by the persecution, or warmed by the story of an unconventional love affair (at least for the time), but when taken as a whole the story is a wonderful and interesting tale of a family, and perhaps, one of loss and then perseverance.
I have seen many of the items in the collection, and I love them all. I think I like best the firewood bundle, though any carving of nature is great. I love netsukes so much that one of the very first posts in this blog are of a netsuke I particularly liked.