Published: June 1, 2016
For the past 40 years, Flying Cranes Antiques, Ltd in New York City has focused upon the innovative work of late Nineteenth Century Japanese Court artists, a title assigned only to a chosen few by the government itself. These superb metalworkers, ceramists and carvers defined the spirit of the time, producing works of exquisite form and technical virtuosity. Gallery co-founder Jean Schaefer recalls for us how she became passionate about Japanese artworks.
By Jean Schaefer
Rap, rap, rap! Our neighbors, Brenda and Nelson, were banging at the back door of our weekend retreat early Saturday morning, long ago in the mid-1970s. “Come on, get dressed, Litchfield is holding an auction on the Green. Let’s go!”
My husband, Clifford, was a shopper. He loved to shop for anything — food, clothes, objects… anything!
Among the box lots Cliff bought on the Green that day was a silver-rimmed vase, beautifully formed, with cranes flying about its surface.
Upon our return home to New York City Monday morning, our afternoon at the library unearthed an image of “our” vase, defined as “Japanese cloisonné” and made by Ando, an enamel-maker prolific during the Meiji period.
From that afternoon on, our lives were defined by the arts of Japan’s Meiji period, a 44-year creative renaissance blossoming during the late Nineteenth Century. And, during that weekend both the concept and the name of our new firm, Flying Cranes Antiques, Ltd, were born.
It took quite a few years before we entered the rather formidable world of selling antiques. That first “find” at the Litchfield auction set us upon a path of research and search. Cloisonné was our first passion and we became collectors. Works by Ando, Inaba, Kawade Shibataro, both Namikawas — Yasuyuki and Sosuke — and all the other difficult-to-find masters adorned our shelves.
But collecting was not easy. The path to acquisition was rocky and time-consuming. Our days were especially difficult since both of us were occupied with our daily work — owner of a retail establishment for Cliff, principal of a corporate-design consultancy for me.
Eventually we sold the personal cloisonné collection to a noted collector. Costs for the great cloisonné masters had skyrocketed and our obsession had turned to Japanese porcelains.
The pristine configurations from the mid-Nineteenth Century Hirado kilns filled our shelves. Soon, works from the then-relatively unknown and fairly inexpensive to buy Japanese ceramist Makuzu Kozan joined them. It was time — time to subsidize our addiction.
After a time, Flying Cranes Antiques became a familiar fixture at local antiques shows. Huge cartons filled our apartment’s elevators at all hours on weekends. A cease-and-desist notice from our apartment’s management came in the mail.
The moment of reckoning had come. Time had elapsed since that rapping at the door in Litchfield and Flying Cranes Antiques Ltd needed to find a permanent venue — one comfortable for clients and for us and our new staff. The Manhattan Art & Antique Center in midtown New York became home to Flying Cranes Antiques then, and 31 years later, is still home.
Meanwhile, our personal collection of rare Makuzu artworks grew and grew. One day, one of our passionate collector-clients from London asked to see our Makuzu collection and as they say, the rest is history. The entire collection of some 60-plus pieces, together with many other works in all media from our gallery, resides now in one of the world’s major collections of Meiji art, immortalized in the famed volumes of The Khalili Collection, Treasures of Imperial Japan.
As the years passed and our business grew both in physical stature and in reputation, my husband and I understood that passion, along with that rare and somewhat nebulous gift known to serious collectors as “a good eye” were givens. We learned quickly that these qualities were components vital to the “business” of buying and selling fine antiques. If profit were to be the end-all, the joy of the transaction — from specialist to collector — would never occur. Discovery and joy encourage the gallerist to rise in the mornings and the collectors to continue with the hunt…
The 1980s and 1990s are long gone, but those years were fertile ground for the period’s growth. Because impassioned collectors of Meiji art were very active at this time and because great material was rare and elusive, costs for these pieces soared. Prices were high and jubilation was rampant. Only a few dealers worldwide had access to the desired masterpieces and competition was intense and feisty. Nonetheless, great collections of Meiji art were amassed and sold and standards of excellence were established.
During that electric period my husband and I purchased Meiji artworks in all categories for what we felt were staggering prices. They sold easily and quickly. Now, just months ago, at Bonhams in New York, the Satsuma collection we sold at very fair prices to our collector over a period of 35 years or so, was gaveled down to a respectable six figures. Just two of its prized vases alone, by the Imperial Court artist Yabu Meizan, were repurchased by me in the six figure-range and in October of this year will be on view at the Hermitage Museum in Russia’s St Petersburg.
Today, as before, great works of art are hard to find. Dealers and salesrooms fight for attainment, while collectors fight for ownership. More than ever, art has become business. Museums all over the world are purchasing top-notch Meiji artwork for permanent display. Our 20-year client, the founder and director of the Kiyomizu Sannenzaka Museum in Kyoto, the first museum in Japan devoted specifically to the arts of the country’s late Edo and Meiji periods, has for years been securing the finest artworks produced. Its collections are easily available to art lovers, worldwide.
Not to be outdone, collectors in the United States are involved with “traveling” exhibitions of Meiji material throughout the country. They are consigning their collections temporarily to museums, curators eager to provide viewers with new areas for aesthetic appreciation and excitement. Japan’s world of innovative art, heightened by Meiji magic, is alive and well…
My husband and I, forever grateful to Brenda and Nelson, our neighbor-friends of so many years ago, refer to our business as “The Gift of the Meiji” — with all of us: collectors, galleries, curators and museums, the beneficiaries.
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