J. from Santa Barbara has two framed Japanese engravings on copper plates, overlayed with layers of gold and silver wash, then acid-etched and hand-tooled. Acid-etching refers to the lines that form the outline of the scenery being drawn in with a chemical then burned out to create a line with reactive acid. This technique is cheaper and faster than the traditional engraving on metal, which was originally done with a burin, a metal incising tool. J.'s two framed images are considered "chokin art," an ancient form of Japanese pictorial gilding.
Since chokin is a traditional art form that goes back 900 years, Japanese connoisseurs would expect traditional images that are recognizable: peaceful scenes of nature, mountains, pagodas, graceful geishas, arched wooden bridges, phoenix birds and dragons. The origins of chokin, and the objects this art form originally decorated, are anything but peaceful. This method of detailed engraving, overlaid with precious metals of silver and gold, was used for objects worn in battle, decorating Samurai armor in the 12th century onward.
J.'s images, however, date form the mid-20th century; the chop (signature) is a facsimile of the chokin artist Risho Arita, a master and teacher of the art form in the 20th century.
Although occasionally antique chokin armor comes up for auction, most of it is so rare that we see it only in museum collections. Yet the Japanese people celebrate chokin-decorated armor in a unique, gender-based way. After all, the style originated with the warrior class. Chokin-decorated Samurai dolls may be presented to boys or displayed in homes by parents of young boys. These dolls are called "May" dolls or "Tango no Sekku" dolls. These chokin-armored, helmeted, fierce figurines are gifts to boys on Children's Day in Japan — the fifth day of the fifth month in the lunar calendar.
Tango no Sekku was originally a national day for boys and fathers, but in 1948, the holiday was changed to include girls and mothers. It's now a celebration of youngsters of both sexes, called Kodomo no Hi. Children have a day or sometimes a week off school (the celebration is one day of Golden Week), perform in plays, join in the Kids' Olympics, and have ceremonies to thank their parents, relatives and teachers.
The chokin-clad Samurai dolls pay tribute to a child of long ago who was also a great and strong Samurai warrior — Kintaro, the model for many young boys. These chokin figures might be displayed by parents in celebration of their boy's strength and bravery. Parents might choose to purchase such a doll, set in luminous folding lacquer screens, sitting upon a dais, to celebrate their boy's health or to impart good luck on future endeavors.
Chokin metalwork, always associated with armor, is meant to convey nobility and dignity. Present-day dolls in chokin armor can sell for up to $900.
J.'s set of two framed metalwork engravings, therefore, have a great historic tradition behind them. They tell the story of honor and tradition by virtue of the medium. However, these are the tourist versions of that medium. They lack the richness and craftsmanship of more valuable antique chokin work. And, of course, the antique chokin is real gold and silver over copper, and entirely hand-worked.
A label on the back of one of J.'s pieces states it dates from a tradition of the 12th century, but J.'s pieces are from the 20th century and imported by a firm in Arlington Heights, Ill. At the time these pieces were imported, Arlington Heights was the archetypal Midwest town, far removed from the chokin tradition (and home to my mother!). EBay lists framed pieces like J.'s as well as other "chokin" works from the 1950s-1980s: vases, trinket boxes, collector plates, bells, clocks, lamps, mugs.
J.'s pieces each bear a label with a single number: 130 and 137. If we saw a fraction, such as 130/200, we'd know that only 200 were made. J. owns the 130th version, but a single number without an edition number does not convince us of rarity and does not add to the piece's value.
These framed works are a popularized version of an ancient art form, much like the Metropolitan Museum of Art's versions of Egyptian cats or Greek Hermes, and are worth less than $100 each. J., I'm afraid eBay is your only market.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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