Paul Moss Exclusive Interview for Rosemont Art Advisory

Paul Moss's gallery, Sydney L. Moss, Ltd., was founded in 1910 by his grandfather (Sydney), and is the longest-lived Asian art specialist dealer family firm in the Western world.  From the beginning it dealt in Chinese ceramics, in which Sydney was one of the more acknowledged experts.  His father Geoffrey introduced Japanese art and especially netsuke (and related arts) to the mix.

Please tell us how did you start collecting Netsuke? And what makes them so collectible right now? How has their market developed and appreciated over the years?
Is it rare to find them ?

Geoffrey was dealing in Japanese netsuke before World War II, but it was immediately after the war that he began to be a leading force in the netsuke world.  He became the dealer in netsuke and in lacquer inro (to which netsuke were attached, on the obi (sash) of the kimono) to, among others, the German industrialist Trumpf, whose collection is now at the Linden Museum, Stuttgart.  But most of all he was the best friend of and the collaborator-dealer to the American / French concert pianist Julius Katchen, who determined upon a course of amassing the greatest collection of animal netsuke (among others) in the world.

I was very fortunate indeed to spend quite some time in my formative years in the Katchen apartment in Paris, playing with their netsuke, sometimes as Julius practiced in the background.  I was 8, 10, 12 years old, and I remember those times vividly.  I can't say that I remember every lesson I learned and was instructed in, but I was left with a deep, lasting attachment to netsuke.

The netsuke market has always progressed steadily, because they are very collectible, new adherents are always catching the bug somehow, and every now and then a Mr. Big comes along to create a new temporary demand and a fierce competition in the marketplace.  Typically, it dies down again after a decade or so, because the new collector is usually quite advanced in years.  At that point it just carries on creeping up again, manageably.  The big question now is if and more to the point when the Chinese decide to overcome their antipathy towards Japanese art and become the new generation of netsuke fetishists.  When that happens we old-timers are concerned that we will be finally priced out of the market.  There are many indicators that it has begun.

But there are an awful lot of great netsuke in old collections - Westerners always rated them much more highly than the Japanese, who continue to focus on a very few super-high finesse detailed carvers of later date, and we have the huge majority of masterpiece netsuke in European and American collections - and I think that it would take decades for them to be tempted out of hiding into dealer shows and auctions for the new Chinese public to amass them.  And of course, they will have to learn.  There are subtle nuances to master, which is why netsuke are an area for connoisseurship.  It's not just a question of building a holding in a focal area of art; this is a field for serious collecting, in which one can refine one's sensibilities.  And, always, learn.  It's a lovely area for indulging and improving oneself in old age.  There are many, many netsuke, and their gradations and variety are kind of infinite.  Whatever you think, you have never seen them all.

What is the Origin of Netsuke ? How to identify a very good Netsuke ? Are they faked often ? Do they come with a certificate of authenticity?
Netsuke begin with Chinese toggles, of which there is a decent book or two.  They are folk art, toggles worn at the waist of horse-riding Northern Chinese and Mongol tribesmen.  When those and also the Fujianese (SE Chinese) tradition of ivory figural carving got to Japan in the early 17th century, early in the Edo period, the Japanese genius for turning a worthwhile example into a fine art form took over, and netsuke became the finest miniature carving in world art history.  Faberge had a netsuke collection, and borrowed freely.

Yes, netsuke are faked quite a lot; but once you know a reasonable amount about the subject, and have handled quite a few, it's not easy to be taken in by most fakes.  There was once a dealer in Honolulu - Bernard Hurtig the Netsuke King, ca 1980s - who issued very formal-looking "Certificates of Authentication"; but he was an idiot, and when I look at those things now I just giggle.  The relatively few dealers, auctioneers and leading collectors who know their stuff are as close as we get to an authentication consensus.  Provenance is also quite important in the upper reaches of the netsuke world; something which we go along with even though it doesn't necessarily make much sense.  A work of art is as good as it is, no matter who else has owned it.  But some of the past collectors were very good, and in a few cases their names have acquired a patina of fame and desirability.  Of course, the longer ago they lived, the older the work of art concerned is demonstrably proven to be.  But we do pay too much attention to provenance.  And no, there is no official body issuing certificates, such as Japanese sword collectors have, or coin collectors everywhere.  Netsuke are too individually varied to be categorised in quite that way.  The trick is to learn who to believe (and agree with, and learn from), and whose spurious opinion to run screaming from.

How you identify a good one is the reason you spend your life becoming first a good, then a great collector, and finally a connoisseur.  There's no explaining that.  You have to look and handle and discuss and play and immerse and learn.  It's a very good way to spend any spare time you can find.

Please see images above. The netsuke is a very - unusually - large boxwood toad by Mitani Goho, about 1800-1810 or so.  We love it, and it's quite famous.  My latest theory, given the pose, is that Goho may have made it for a daimyo (provincial lord).  It's essentially a toad in the stubbornly, patiently waiting attitude of the loyal attendant.

As artworks can be moved between countries, there is always a risk of unexpected taxation in the country where the artworks are currently located in the event of the sudden death of the owner.
The importance of professional estate planning for collection, what does it mean to you as an art dealer and expert in sourcing Asian art, have you dealt with collectors who sought your guidance in their succession planning , when it was time to prepare the inheritance, divorce or death?
I understand that this is an area of much concern for you, but I have never had any time to worry about such things.  I'm always studying; the backroom boy.  There are many areas of Chinese and Japanese art that I love, approach and appreciate, but don't know enough about.  Our most recent foray (I try to very gently teach my son Oliver, the fourth-generation head of Sydney L. Moss Ltd.; I gave the family firm to him a few years ago) is into Japanese wood temple sculpture; you have seen the catalogue of nine sculptures that we produced to celebrate our travels to Japan and our immersion in learning about sculpture.  That sort of attack upon a previously under-recognised area (in the West, among collectors) is extremely time-consuming, as well as expensive.  Our attitude is that we spend all of our time dealing with works of art; learning about art, burying ourselves neck deep in art, acquiring great art.  That is what makes us fulfilled and happy.  Honestly, I think that these questions of legality and succession planning are for others to worry about, and I commend you for it.  One thing I probably shouldn't say is that netsuke are very small.

How has your gallery dealt with Covid-19 restrictions? Have you been benefiting from the digital ways of reaching out to collectors? 
We were closed for three months, except that my son and I would drive into town once a week to look after the art, keep the humidity levels safe and check the post.  We furloughed two of our tiny staff, and they are still furloughed, because we don't want anyone taking public transport to come to work.  Now for three or four weeks we have one young staff member who can walk to our gallery-house, unless the weather is really bad, and so we are open by appointment most weekdays.  It's really rare for us to have two separate customers at the same time, so we can deal with the few visitors who brave the London streets easily enough.  But I found that the lack of having a project to work on was really getting to me, and so I undertook to revamp our addresses and especially our e-addresses system - finding out as best I could who had moved, died or lost interest; it was a huge, endless project, because our database was unmanaged and out of control - and subsequent to that we have instituted a programme of Lockdown Special e-blasts on this or that specific subject.  For those who care to be emailed, they are a staggered series of bite-sized focuses on varied areas of Asian art.  We seem to have an awful lot of really remarkable works, and they lend themselves to being grouped in this way.  The diversity of them works well; they help each other.  So far our "e-blasts" have been nearly all on Japanese netsuke and inro - because we have so many of them, and they are very photogenic.  But we are constructing a series of "blasts" on, for example, classical Chinese painting; three or maybe four of those, over as many months, depending on the optimum number of images one can safely send so that recipients can view and open them.  Old Chinese painting and calligraphy has been another of our most important specialist focal points over the years; it is the one most museum curators know us for.  80% of the people we email our Chinese painting selections to will be museums in Europe and the US.

We have been sending our netsuke and inro e-blasts to 800-plus people so far, and it has been fairly successful.  Four people have asked us to desist from sending them, and we have a fan club of thirty or so people who insist each time they receive something upon thanking us profusely.  The great majority, though, just seem to take it all silently in, and I only hope that they are enjoying them.  Maybe in several cases we'll find out later.  Our idea was that in theory we wouldn't have these people's email addresses in the first place unless there was something about Asian art that they were interested in, one way or another; and we have made some pretty good sales to some, and cemented our friendly relationship with many more.  Of course, in a way this is online advertising; but I personally detest online advertising (I'm not crazy about advertising of any sort; we produce in-depth book-catalogues as a more lasting alternative), and so it really doesn't taste too much of advertising at all.  I prefer that our audience thinks of it as more of a time-lapsed performance art, designed to keep me hard at work.  

This is the first time that we have ever seriously approached any online presence.  Previously, we didn't even put on our website any work of art that was actually for sale, preferring to make people come and look in person.  But for quite a while to come, they can't and they won't do that.  Once we are done with this (extensive) series of e-selections, my plan is to stop doing that and to go back to our bad old ways of buying and having fun, building up collections and waiting for enthusiasts to finally work out that they need to come and see us.  It's what we're best at.  Our Grand Plan is to have conveniently at hand enough serious examples in our favourite, focal areas of specialisation that if and when the right person finds us at last and has one of more enjoyable afternoons of their adult life they can leave clutching the essentials of an important, world-class collection.  Meanwhile, though, constructing these e-blast selections is an interesting discipline.  And we'll see.  Maybe the younger generation will want to do some more of the same online, but diversifying it somehow.  They already run an Instagram account.  I don't particularly approve.

Future e-blast concepts will include Japanese screens and larger paintings; Zen painting and calligraphy; No theatre masks and accoutrements; Japanese pipecases and smoking sets; and a series of three focused selections on the works of the Japanese stag-antler carver Ozaki Kokusai.  We produced a 3-volume book on him and his followers a couple of years ago - the first proper book on a single netsuke carver - but many enthusiasts don't have the book and will I hope be taken aback - in a good way - to see much of the range of his work gathered together.  We intend that these "outreach" focal e-blasts should be educative as well as visually entertaining, because above all what we need is a clientele of collectors who understand what they're doing.  

If you were to give your advice to Asian HNWI wishing to invest in art and diversify their portfolios what would you say to them?
Do you know; I had to google what HNWI stands for ?  Sincerely, I spend my life reading books about art, writing books about art, looking at art.  It's a great life, I'm very lucky and I recommend it.  My advice to Asian HNWI and indeed to anyone interested in Asian art and culture is; take Japanese art very seriously.  When I took over my family firm in 1980 I determined that I would embark upon a course of balancing Chinese and Japanese art, so that one didn't outweigh the other.  Or rather; initially it was to construct a three-legged stool in terms of quantity and of value, whereby I would specialise in 1) old Chinese painting and calligraphy, 2) Chinese scholar's desk ie literati objects, and 3) Japanese art, with a focus on netsuke.  I had studied Chinese at university, lived four months in Hong Kong, immersed; I was quite Chinese-minded.  During the intervening 40 years I have written thirty books on Chinese and Japanese art, and the irrevocable pull in terms of those books' content and of the works we have dealt in has been towards Japanese.  Japanese art and culture are powerfully fascinating.  I do nothing else; and I learn new things every day.  I haven't stopped loving literati Chinese art, but it became impossible years ago to meaningfully deal in scholar's desk materials.  We try our best to keep up with participating in the market for old Chinese painting and calligraphy - son Oliver is in mainland China for a couple of months each year - but it is extremely difficult, getting randomly more expensive by the minute, and very gradually our holdings in Chinese art are being eroded.  I don't complain; in terms of value half of what we own is Chinese (and in Chinese taste), and it's really good, and when we sell any of it we make enough to pay for entire collections of Japanese works of art - but it is a constant battle, not half the fun it used  to be.  Whereas Japanese art - of museum quality; genuinely serious material - is strikingly affordable.  Much more so, most of it, than it was in the 1980s, for example - the last time the rest of the world had a Japanese art boom.  Not only that; the Japanese authorities seem now much more relaxed about letting their treasures out of the country.  That's how we bought the sculptures from our "Divine Intervention" book.  The major exceptions to the lower-cost rule seem to be netsuke and Japanese prints, where the Western markets still hold all the cards.  But painting and calligraphy, sculpture, sword "furniture" and lacquers - all areas at which the Japanese excelled, aesthetically; these things are maybe too affordable.  Except for a very few stellar names and examples, which seem to be valued on the same basis as high-rise property in downtown Tokyo.

What is your dream?
My dreams these days seem to be mostly about some of my old collector-friends.  But apart from dreaming of getting my nose out of all these books for a while and taking a holiday, the project I dream of, for myself and for my son, who is the one that will be doing most of the legwork from here on in, is that we actively help create a couple of the world's great collections of Chinese and Japanese art, as my father did with Julius Katchen.  That collection was essentially half my father's taste, half Julius'.   I have helped to make a handful of such collections of netsuke and to a lesser extent of inro, and we have a great collection now that we are deeply involved in building.  It does require a degree of commitment on the behalf of the collector; a consistency, and a willingness to learn and to listen, and to see sideways and beyond his or her initial directions and enthusiasms.  But it's just such a rewarding arena for the likes of us.  In terms of old Chinese paintings and calligraphy I did spend a little over a decade of my life building from a pretty low level the collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Art, when the extraordinary local philanthropist Bruce Dayton and his curator Bob Jacobsen picked me as their guy.  That was a wonderful time, and Bruce's determination catapulted Minneapolis into being one of the top ten museums in the US for Chinese art.  I am still warmed by the glow of his achievement and my part in it; but now Bruce is gone, the museum staff has all changed and they have their own ideas, and I think that for me the ideal scenario would be a sympathetic private super-collector with whom we could not only have an ongoing relationship, but who would allow us visiting rights to the art after the event.

It's not like we don't have a couple of candidates; but you ask what would be my dream. 

Who is your favorite artist?
Of course, the variety is the whole point.  But in netsuke, Masanao of Kyoto, Kokusai (the crazy man I wrote the book about), Mitsuhiro, Tomiharu; ten or fifteen other wildly diverse personalities.  You can get to know these artists through their works, empirically and literally.  Netsuke are extremely tactile.  You can feel their personalities.  It's still exciting.

Karolina Blasiak interviewed Paul Moss, for Rosemont Art Advisory monthly newsletter. If you want to receive our newsletter or you wish to get more information on provenance and acquisition modalities  and availability, please contact her:

Credit Pictures:
1/ Paul Moss
2/ Paul Moss and his team
3/ Gallery house
4/Two views of big Goho toad
5/ 6081    UNSIGNED     - 7446    UNSIGNED    -  7131    OKATORI    - 5538    UNSIGNED   
6/ 7596    KOMA KANSAI II     -  7726   MASASADA