The County Museum of Art has acquired a mini-zoo of wild animals--boars, lions, monkeys, rabbits and mythological creatures--in a cache of 141 netsuke valued at more than $1 million. The miniature Japanese sculptures, including fanciful human characters as well as intricately carved animals, are a gift from Raymond and Frances Bushell.
The Tokyo-based couple made the donation as the first installment of a promised gift that will include 600 netsuke, currently on long-term loan to the museum, plus examples of other minor Japanese art forms such as sword furnishings and pipe cases.
"I'm not what you would call a giver-away-er," Raymond Bushell said in a telephone interview. "But there were two considerations (in choosing LACMA). First, the museum has a strong interest in Oriental art, particularly Japanese. Second, it has primary material such as paintings, but not the minor arts, so I know they will make good use of the netsuke."
Bushell, a lawyer, began collecting netsuke in 1945 when he was in Japan "during the occupation," he said. "They were very available" and inexpensive then. But once he "had the disease," he continued collecting, even when prices escalated to five figures.
In the process of amassing several thousand netsuke, "about 1,200 of high quality," Bushell became an authority on the subject, writing eight books and numerous scholarly articles.
Netsuke are appreciated as museum-quality sculpture now, and contemporary artists who can turn them out cash in on a flourishing market. But the miniature carvings were originally created during the Edo period (1615-1868) as toggles to attach medicine boxes or tobacco pouches to sashes on traditional Japanese garments. Carved in ivory, wood or stag antler, they range in height from about 1 1/2 to 5 inches but often contain astonishing detail.
Subjects include mundane and exotic slices of life, legendary heroes and villains, and a rich variety of themes inspired by nature. Among prime examples in the gift to the County Museum are Kaigyokusai Masatsugu's 19th-Century carving of zodiac animals entwined in an ivory circle, Yochimura Shuzan's 18th-Century demon of painted wood and a bizarre, elongated monkey fashioned from a stag antler during the late 19th Century by Kokusai. Toyomasa's 19th-Century works include wood depictions of a wild boar and wrestling match between a rabbit and a monkey.
The Bushells' gift will go on view in the museum's new Pavilion for Japanese Art, expected to open in September.