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Treasures: Finding artist’s name on dramatic Japanese work could increase value

Dear Helaine and Joe:

We need some help trying to find out what we have. This bird was in my father's family, and we have a photograph of it in my grandfather's house. The photograph was from the 1920s so we think this piece is more than 100 years old. Both the tree and the bird are cast bronze. We have not been able to find any manufacturer's name on it. Can you help us?

Thank you,

W. B., Camp Hill, Pa.

Dear W. B.:

Thank you for putting a 12-inch ruler next to the piece. This measuring device seems to indicate the piece is 16 to 18 inches tall.

The size would make the sculpture somewhat imposing, with its realistic depiction of a menacing bird of prey – possibly some sort of hawk – perched on a tree branch looking like it is just about to thrust out its wings, launch into the air and grab its next meal. The piece is meant to be artistic and not a mass-produced table decoration.

It would be important to know who the artist was who conceived the image and then had it cast in bronze. We are sure the artist was Japanese and equally sure the piece was made during the so-called Meiji period, which lasted from 1868 to 1912.

Japanese sculpture has its origins in ancient times. Before the mid-19th century, Japanese sculpture typically featured Buddhist and Shinto themes and was greatly influenced by Chinese art. When Japan opened its doors to Western trade and contact, many Japanese bronze sculptors became influenced by European art, specifically in this case the artists known as "animaliers."

The term was first applied derisively to the work of Antoine-Louis Barye in 1831, but many other artists such as Isidore and Rosa Bonheur, Pierre-Jules Mene and Emile-Coriolan Guillemin were noted for their small scale, naturalist depictions of various animals. Japanese artists working in the late 19th and early 20th centuries also worked in this vein, producing realistic images of animals taken from Japanese folklore and the environment.

One can find depictions of everything from lions and tigers to peacocks, mice, cranes, eagles, fish, quail, elephants, roosters, songbirds, wild boar, cats, rhinoceros beetles and, yes, hawks. Many are signed by the artists, but many others are not. W. B. should examine his piece carefully looking for several Asian characters worked into the metal that may be very hard to find.

Sometimes the characters can be well hidden, but sometimes they are written within a cartouche, which makes them much easier to spot. Finding the characters and obtaining a translation into English would potentially reveal the artist's name and could greatly enhance the value.

It is impossible to give an accurate estimate of the value of the piece without being absolutely sure whether or not it is signed. But if it is not, we feel the piece would probably sell in the $1,000 to $2,000 range at auction. That price could be higher on the right day and in the right place.

Helaine Fendelman and Joe Rosson have written a number of books on antiques. Do you have an item you'd like to know more about? Contact them at Joe Rosson, 2504 Seymour Ave., Knoxville, TN 37917, or email them at treasures@knology.net. If you'd like your question to be considered for their column, please include a high-resolution photo of the subject, which must be in focus, with your inquiry.