My dad used to have them outside his den. I remember sneaking down there in the dead of night to try to see them. Or maybe I was dreaming, perhaps sleepwalking my way to his collection. Whether awake or asleep, I know I wanted to be impressed, to marvel at the pieces, whether for their monetary or aesthetic value, I don’t recall. Maybe both, I suppose.
They were high-quality Netsuke, he told me, and he had collected only quite old pieces. He stored them in two cases outside his office, one on each side of the door, standing like sentinels. Not glass cases, but ones with solid doors so that the collection could not be seen unless you unlocked the doors.
I asked him once why he hid them like that. He said they were only for him to see at his leisure, and for those he invited to enjoy them. “As for the rest, they can remain ignorant of the fact that I have these treasures hidden there. One day when you’re old enough to appreciate their value, I’ll let you see them, too.”
Netsuke are miniature hand-carved sculptures. The Japanese began making them in the 17th century. They are made of many materials, but the most prized are those carved out of the ivory tusks of elephants. These are even more valuable now that it is illegal to take tusks.
Originally the little sculptures performed the utilitarian task of serving as closures, like buttons or clasps, for various containers carried upon one’s person to store essentials. These were needed before the invention of pockets. As this need declined over time, then, they became an art form all by themselves. Netsuke are still created today but would have been of little value to a collector like my father.
My father began collecting Netuske when he was stationed in Japan many years ago. After he moved back to Honolulu and started his family, he continued buying pieces. But as I say, he pursued only the most valuable oldest elephant ivory pieces.
Once I asked him if it was unwise to store them at our house. “What if there’s a fire, or what if someone breaks in and steals them?”
My father said, “If there’s a fire, they’ll survive. The cases in the hall are made of a fireproof board.”
I waited, but he didn’t continue. “And what about thieves?” I finally asked again.
“Well,” he said, settling into his chair. “If someone breaks into the cases and finds them, then I suppose he or she needed to possess them more than I did.”
“But shouldn’t you store them in a safe or a safe deposit box at the bank?”
“I could,” he said, “but if I want to see them, I want to see them right away. The locked cases provide enough security, just a turn of the key in order to have a look at them.”
He folded his hands behind his head and sat further back. Watching him stare up at the ceiling, I wondered if he were trying to imagine what kind of person would rob him of his treasures.
After I’d been unable to find a job following graduation from college, I came home one day when my parents were out. I knew where the keys to the cases were, of course, but I forced the locks so that my father would think someone had broken in.
I collected every Netsuke piece, returned to the airport, and flew back to Chicago where I was living at the time. Quite quickly, as I’d hoped, I found buyers for every piece. This set me up well for a good while, and I finally managed to find a job just as the money was running out.
My father, I heard, took the theft much better than I’d supposed he would. Apparently, insurance covered the complete loss, and he began collecting again, but again only the oldest, most valuable pieces he could find. And again, elephant tusk only.
I suppose he actually did believe that someone needed the Netsuke more than he did. And he was right.