Pieces once sold as low-priced home decor have become three-figure collectibles


October 06, 1991|By Carleton Jones

You used to be able to buy them for anything from 25 cents up to a dollar or two in the better variety stores. Most pieces came in the form of ashtrays. Sometimes the vases were $1.50.

Now, the price is up into three figures -- dollars, that is. All of a sudden, cloisonne, the delicate art of blending wire and ceramics, is back in style and is becoming a major subheading in the collectible field.

Those simple, bargain imports were crude factory imitations of the great Oriental cloisonne art, of which more later. Most such pieces were imported in the 1930s. I got my comeuppance on its price escalation at one of those roadside flea markets in Carroll County.

We'd stopped to look over the wares and I saw an attractive small cloisonne vase, all of 5 inches high, on the table. It vibrated with cloisonne's silvery accents and had a sort of millefleurs pattern. The numbers on the price tag said 150. I handed over two dollars. Then the local salesman said, "That's 150 dollars." End of sale.

Small vases, ashtrays, boxes, decorative plates and even lamps were commonplace affordables seen in gift shops and artware stores in the 1920s and 1930s; these are the things that have suddenly been recognized as values.

Basically, cloisonne is metal and enamelwork. It's made up of gold or silver wires soldered in place on metal bowls, plates or vases to form patterns of line. In the spaces created, enamels of different colors are inserted and the piece is fired at a constant temperature, generally around 1,450 degrees.

The effect, whether the piece is Chinese or Japanese in origin, is invariably rich and distinctly different in style from one country to the other.

Distinguished Japanese craftsmen began diversifying the cloisonne technique more than a century ago. In the course of about half a century, legendary "national treasures" raised such work to the level of a great art.

Specimens abound in the world-class collection of Steve Fisher, a Baltimore County school principal whose elegant cloisonne assembly -- a selection from about 250 pieces of it, anyway -- was on display recently at Baltimore's Walters Art Gallery. Mr. Fisher notes that there is "an enormous variety" in Japanese cloisonne, but even so it shows decided differences from the Chinese version that preceded it by centuries. Few ceramics fans, for instance would confuse the serene elegance of Japanese vases from what is called the "golden period" of Meiji art (1868-1930) with the heavy-spirited Chinese specimens of the same period.

"There's a certain uniformity to Chinese cloisonne," says Mr. Fisher. "There are no gradations or refinements." Colors usually are deep turquoise or dark blue-green and sometimes red and yellow against a dark background, he adds. By contrast, the Japanese colors range through the spectrum. As the years passed, Mr. Fisher says, they became more and more like ceramic paintings, revealing the "evanescence of life" and the beauties of nature.

"Basically, the collector says, "the Japanese built on what the Chinese did."

As early as 1876, the Japanese sent eye-popping cloisonne works to the World's Exposition in Philadelphia, Mr. Fisher notes. Such work became popular with the Japanese decorative craze of the 1890s, stimulated by James McNeill Whistler and other artists. By the 1980s, works by one of the great figures of cloisonne art of Japan, Namikawa Yasuyuki, were bringing five-figure prices at auction. Even ordinary cloisonne of master craftsmanship had achieved price parity with prints by such graphic artists as Hiroshige and Utamaro, and values were about double that of choice netsuke miniature statues.

Yasuyuki is one of the Rembrandts of the cloisonne art, represented in the collections of the Japanese imperial household. There are 20 of his works in the Fisher collection. Ceremonial pieces made for royalty and nobility often celebrated mythical or literary events. A circa-1900 piece in the Fisher collections depicts in almost microscopic detail a legendary boar hunt.

Decor on "golden age" pieces of Japanese cloisonne became simpler as time passed, and also freer, and many pieces emerged with an art nouveau or even art deco feeling.

Gradually, as the cloisonne artists evolved, the "wires became part of the art itself" says Mr. Fisher, not simply dividing tones but defining movements in nature. The vase designs became freer and more and more naturalistic.

"Cloisonne wasn't ornament any more; it was art," the collector concludes.

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