Asian Ivory

Book Review by Eric J. Hoffman


   Jeffrey B. Snyder, Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 2007. 256 pp, 600+ color photographs. Hardbound, 12 x 9 inches. $79.95

   Ivory is a near-perfect material for carving. Dense, hard, and durable, it allows the carver a full range of artistic expression down to the finest detail. Ivory carving in China dates back more than 6000 years. Japan adopted the art much later and carried it to new heights. This beautifully produced book showcases hundreds of ivory artworks from these two cultures.

   Jeffrey Snyder has authored 25 other books for Schiffer, with topics ranging from oyster plates to walking sticks. For this book, his first on Asian antiques, he received help from a few “able guides” and selected pieces from five important private collections.

   The book is divided into an Introduction, a History of Ivory Production, The Scholar’s Life, and a section on Ivory Figures. A brief introduction to the material itself includes a warning about the many imitators of true elephant ivory, but little in the way of practical advice on how to detect them. Likewise, the reader receives little help in distinguishing elephant ivory from, for example, mammoth ivory, walrus tusk, hippo teeth, or other “ivories” that might be encountered. There is a useful two paragraph summary of the Endangered Species Act (CITES) provisions as they relate to ivory.

   The History section begins with Chinese ivory but quickly moves on to Japanese. No truly ancient Chinese ivories are shown, possibly because the author apparently elected not to include museum examples in this book.

   The author explains some of the cultural aspects and symbolism important to understanding the motifs commonly seen in Chinese carvings and Japanese okimono cabinet pieces. Some vignettes from books written by travelers to Asia 100 years ago and more enliven the text. These include interesting discussions of how the raw material was obtained and worked, how the art dealers operated, and an “Interview with a Japanese Ivory Carver.”

   The pieces illustrated are mainly Japanese and mostly from the 19th and early 20th centuries. The quality ranges from superb down to a few that are fairly crude. Some readers may be disappointed that the very finest examples of each type, which most likely reside in museums, are not illustrated here. This is a limitation of relying on a small number of private collections. To respect the collectors’ anonymity the pieces are not attributed to their source, except for one collection. There is an entire section on colored ivories imitating flowers and fruits (as well as a warning about staining used to “antique” ivory). The advanced collector will notice that little is said about ivory connoisseurship that would help the reader distinguish first-rate from lesser carvings.

   The photography throughout is excellent, and where possible the carver’s seal is also shown. A minor quibble is that most of the photographs share the same background, which can get boring. A concise but useful Bibliography (including some Web sites) rounds out the book. But it omits some classic ivory references, such as the books by Laufer, Cox, Eastham, and Wills, and the ivory catalogs of the Seattle Art Museum and the Oriental Ceramic Society.

   Overall, this book will be of interest to every collector and dealer of Asian ivory, as well as a treat for those interested in Asian decorative arts in general.


Copyright © 2009 by Eric J. Hoffman

Originally published in Adornment magazine, Vol. 7, No. 4, Winter 2009