High quality Kutani ware from Japan are easily some of the finest ceramics ever made. Generally, Kutani ware can come in a myriad array of forms, styles, and color motifs with certain styles and motifs heavily belonging to one or more periods in Kutani production. I continue collecting these wares and have been doing so since the age of fourteen. My collection is dominated by Mejii and Edo era pieces and contains some very high quality works from those eras. Collecting Kutani ware has never been easy, however, and even now I am often stymied in attempts to learn more about these amazing antiques.
The biggest obstacle for US collectors is a lack of high quality published works in English on the subject of Kutani porcelain. There are some very fine published material out there including Bowes’ Japanese Marks and Seals as well as an occasional well done web article, but the overall lack of material presents collectors with a certain difficulties not normally encountered in the antique world. Ironically, there are even few works in the native Japanese that poses severe limits on the ability of translators to even address the issue.
Almost as frustrating is the fact that many popular and well done annual price guide for both Asian antiques as well as more general ones almost entirely ignore the subject of Kutani ware. The reasons for this are multiple, but they mainly revolve around the basic problem that without decent source material the publishers of such guides face a high risk of providing low quality or even inaccurate information to their readers. Faced with this quandary, it is far less risky for them to simply avoid the topic altogether in most instances.
Because of these obstacles, it is not uncommon to find Kutani ware labeled incorrectly at even high end dealers. Most often you find that Kutani ware is mislabeled as Satsuma, which is a type of Japanese pottery often identified by the use of a crackle glaze in its production. Other mislabeled pieces are identified as simply being “Asian _______” or, worse, as Chinese porcelain. The only benefit of all this confusion to collectors is that there are times when very high quality pieces available at a significant discount to their intrinsic value. Further, because of the lack of content there are also very few knowledgeable collectors out there which can reduce the competition for fine pieces in non-urban areas or where dealers have chosen not to make use of online selling.
Despite these benefits, I fine my inability to learn more about this very rich kind of porcelain frustrating. I know for a fact that I am not alone in this as I had many conversations where other collectors expressed similar frustrations regarding the matter . This is unfortunate as high quality Kutani produced during Japan’s cultural and artistic golden age known as the Mejii Period are among the most finely decorated porcelain in existence. Further, the use of bold color in Ko-Kutani or “old Kutani” is as spectacular as any you will find and shows the creativity and forward looking mindset of these early potters. This kind if Kutani ware dates to the 17th Century and is typically the highest valued of all Kutani in regards to price. For those who do not mind a challenge and who value the decorative arts, I highly recommend collecting Kutani as it in my opinion ranks among the world’s very best. Simply be aware that their exists enormous variations in quality in Kutani ware and it can be difficult to find pieces that are more than just tacky trinkets. When you do have success in the hunt, however, the rewards make collecting fine Kutani ware enormously enjoyable.
Of all the high end bookbinding materials, perhaps the most intriguing for me is vellum. A type of high quality animal parchment made from very young animals, vellum is a degreased skin usually from calf, that is cleaned, bleached, stretched, and scraped in order to prepare for use. Interestingly, vellum is never tanned as is common practice for preparing leather for use and the material should be considered a distinct product from leather. Today, the prepared vellum is commonly used as a writing surface, especially valued for religious purposes, and as a binding material. Many uses for vellum other than these have been developed by clever craftsman for ages, but the focus here is exclusively as a bookbinding material.
The use of vellum dates thousands of years. However, the early uses of vellum are almost exclusively as a writing surface like animal parchment. In fact vellum and parchment exist on a continuum of sorts with vellum referring to only the highest quality of parchments. Many of the most beautiful of illuminated manuscripts from the Middle Ages were done on vellum as were many early watercolor paintings. The use of vellum to bind expensive and highly valued books is a more recent phenomena starting with the invention of moveable type in Europe. Many incunabula are bound in vellum. Most often found in a creamy white as the title of this post suggests, vellum can also be found in many different colors including very pale blues and greens. High quality vellum bindings are a particular favorite of mine as I find the virtues of a entire row of books in pure white to be many. Such a row finely crafted books is striking in regards to beauty and also quite distinctive. In addition, I find myself fascinated by the material and its many uses including the role of vellum as an early alternative and precursor to paper.
I know vellum is not for everyone, especially those who object to the use of animal skins for decorative and other purposes, but for me, there is no other binding material that I receive so much pleasure from. I will admit though. I will choose a morocco binding over vellum simply due to the latter’s superior ware characteristics. Lover’s of vellum must contend with the fact that the material can age quite poorly in comparison to other high quality bindings. When I do find a work I value in vellum that has stood the test of time well, I will almost always jump at the opportunity to add to my collection.