Years ago, we had the opportunity to work on a project to build a software museum collection project entitled EmbARK and interestingly enough that software is still in use today some 25 years later.  This software was created to catalog the New York Museum of Modern Art and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s fine art collections.

This project was quite interesting in that it provided us insight into the need to catalog art, its history and its provenance.  So it was eye opening to us when we began to collect stones in the US that very little was done to preserve the history, or provenance, of the stones we were collecting and/or buying.  There were however a few exceptions and this was primarily stones we purchased from Japan.

In Japan it is very common to record the history of a stone on the kiri-bako that is used to store the stone.  Often recorded on the box is the name of the stone, the river it was collected from, the period in which it was collected as well as a current or prior ownership history.  We have always placed a high value on collecting stones of this type as it more closely fits our acquisition model of paintings and artwork that we collect.  We believe having the story of the stone adds significant interest and value.

furuya-ishi

This small Furuya-ishi stone was auctioned at Christie’s in December, 2015, at the Beyond White Clouds – Chinese Scholar’s Rocks from a Private Collection. Yes, we find it interesting as well that a Japanese Furuya-ishi was sold in a Chinese Scholar’s Rock auction, but there you are.  This 14.5cm stone sold for 300,000 HKD or at the time $38,891 US.

You, like us, might be taken back by the price of this rather small stone – 5 3/4-inches.  However, as we continue to look at the history of this stone we begin to understand why it was able to bring that price at the auction.

This stone was from the late Edo period in Japan; 1603-1868.  Here is the lead-in on the auction page.

“The horizontal stone with pointed ridges resembling a craggy mountain, the surface with natural calcite striations representing waterfalls gushing out from valleys. 5 3/4 in. (14.5 cm.) wide, wood stand, Japanese wood box with signature of Yamomoto Baitsu dated to 1852, within a larger Japanese wood box with signature of Tani Tetsuomi dated to 1875.”

So we see that the stone’s provenance reaches back to at least 1852  with a signature on the box dated 1875.  So the stone’s history is at least 165 years.

furuyia-ishi-album-2

Let’s continue to review what also came with this historical stone: A mounted album of commentaries by various connoisseurs. What follows is the rest of the auction catalog description of the stone, box and album.

“The current rock mountain is fitted within two Japanese wood boxes. The cover of the smaller wood box is inscribed on one side with the characters long men (dragon gate), signed Gyokuzen; the other side with an inscription by Gyokuzen with a cyclical renzi date corresponding to 1852, explaining that he has renamed the rock ‘Mount Horai (Penglai)’, an immortal dwelling supported on a turtle’s back in Chinese mythology, due to its resemblance of the underside that is similar to the texture of a turtle shell. Gyokuzen is the studio name of the renowned literati painter Yamamoto Baiitsu (1783-1856), who was active during the late Edo period. The other larger wood box is inscribed on one side of the cover with the characters reading Mount Horai, signed Nyoiou with a cyclical yihai date corresponding to 1875, and a seal reading Taiko; the other side with a seal Chisendou. Nyoiou and Taiko are both studio names of the Meiji-period poet Tani Tetsuomi (1822-1905) active in the Omi area, while Chisendou is the studio name of the seal carver Okumura Chikutei (1873-1927).

The rock is also accompanied by a mounted album with commentaries by 15 literati active in the Omi and Kyoto areas during the late 19th to early 20th century. In this album, the painter Murata Koukoku (1831-1912) portrayed the present rock mountain in two illustrations, and in a commentary dated to 1873 noted that the rock was originally possessed by Kosugi, and later came into the collection of Yamamoto Baiitsu, whom first named the rock ‘Dragon Gate’ and then ‘Mount Horai’. Its ownership had thence been transferred to Ichida. It is likely that Kosugi refers to Kosugi Goroemon (1785-1854), a Japanese entrepreneur active in Omi area during the late Edo period, while Ichida refers to Ichida Yaichirou (1843-1906), a Japanese entrepreneur active in Omi area during the Meiji period. Since the larger wood box bears the signature of Tani Tetsuomi dated to 1875 on one side and the seal of Okumura Chikutei on the other, it is possible that the rock mountain was later passed on to Okumura Chikutei and then to Okumura Chikutei.

The 15 literati participating in the making of this album include: Murata Koukoku (1831-1912), Tani Tetsuomi (1822-1905), Yamanaka Ken(1822-1885), Kamiyama Houyou(1824-1889), Ema Tenkou (1825-1901), Jin Shiheng (act. Guangxu period) , Tanabe Hekidou (1864-1931), Nakamura Tansui , Okamoto Yu(1810-1897), Katayama Tsutomu, Hayashi Sokyou (1828-1896), Ichimura Ken(1842-1899), most of whom had poems included in the publication Nihon Dojin Shisen, which was published in 1883 in Japan and compiled by the Chinese poet Chen Manshou who travelled to Japan in the late 19th century and became associated with the literati circle in Omi and Kyoto areas.”

furuyia-ishi-album-1

This is an amazing set of documentation for the provenance of this stone.  I think most would be proud if this were a part of their personal collection and from our perspective this stone and album is certainly museum worthy.

So you might be asking at this point – what’s the point, none of us, or very few, are going to spend $38,000 for a stone and book – we agree, and of course, this is not our point.  Now, we ask you would this stone be worth $38,000 to anyone without the recorded provenance of this stone? This points to the object of this discussion: we would like to emphasize the need for us to better document our suiseki, scholar stones and/or viewing stones.

Perhaps we might ask ourselves who cares about the stones we collect?  We should!  How often have you purchased a stone that has clearly gone through numerous hands to hear when you ask about the history of the stone at best the only thing that can be said is maybe, and I repeat maybe, what river it was collected from some time ago, and even this is often a guess. Typically we have no idea who collected it, who made the stand upon which it sits or any other valuable information that would be helpful for us or for generations to come.

Not everyone will build, or buy, a box to store their stones.  We understand that, neither will we; however, let’s begin to think about at least creating something in writing that we can pass along with the stone in the future.  Janet Roth is perhaps one of the greatest examples as I can give her credit for her fastidious documentation of her bonsai collection.  She keeps very good notes not only on the acquisition, but also the progress and work she performs on her trees. Might I suggest we begin to do the same level of documenation for our stones.  Here is just a few suggestions on what to write down.

  • River, lake or location the stone was originally collected
  • Date of original collection
  • Characteristics of the stone: color, texture, shape, size, etc.
  • Owners, both current and past
  • Creator of the stand for the stone, type of wood, style
  • Exhibitions the stone has participated in
  • Books, magazines or other publications that have displayed the stone
  • The personal importance of the stone: a more personal story of why the stone was collected or the memories it brings to us

I’m sure there are other things you might want to write down, such as where you were when you purchased it, the memories of that trip, etc.  Whatever is relevant to you at the time as this will all become a part of the personal history of the stone.

I know if we were to purchase a stone like this, having its history would be very meaningful. In addition, we want to do this so that our stones and stories will exist long after we depart this earth!

Let us know what you think…

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