Centuries-old Imari ware in Japan was once in king’s porcelain collection in Dresden: study

This photo shows the “Iroe tori maku sakura botan mon wa-tsunagi sukashi-zara” porcelain bowl kept at the Imari Nabeshima Gallery. (Photo courtesy of the Imari Municipal Board of Education)

SAGA — Two centuries-old Imari ware bowls in southwestern Japan’s Saga Prefecture once belonged to a set of 13 items that were exported to Germany during the Edo period (1603-1867) and became part of the porcelain collection of a king who admired ceramic ware from the East, Japanese researchers have discovered.

Imari ware was made around the Saga Prefecture town of Arita, with production said to have begun in the 1610s. The two items in Saga Prefecture that were exported to Europe are now respectively held at the Kyushu Ceramic Museum in Arita and the Imari Nabeshima Gallery in the neighboring city of Imari.

Investigations into the bowls’ provenance were conducted by researchers including Miki Sakuraba, who has a doctorate in art history and works as a part-time lecturer at Musashino Art University specializing in the history of art and crafts in Japan and Europe. She joined an international collaborative project to digitize images of some 8,200 items of Japanese and Chinese porcelain in the Dresden Porcelain Collection, part of the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, or State Art Collections, in the eastern German state of Saxony.

The base of the bowl held at the Kyushu Ceramic Museum in Arita bears the palace number “N:316+” as seen in this image provided by the museum.

The items in the collection in Dresden were acquired by Augustus II the Strong, Elector of Saxony (1670-1733). Augustus, who became king of Poland, was a collector of Eastern porcelain, and gained recognition for successfully firing hard-paste porcelain for the first time in Europe. He also launched the Meissen porcelain manufactory in Germany in 1710.

According to investigations by Sakuraba and fellow researchers, 1,203 of the approximately 8,200 items in the Dresden collection were made in Japan, and of these, 1,196 pieces are Imari ware. Following the arrival of large quantities of Chinese porcelain and Imari ware in the 17th century, exquisitely painted pure white porcelain became highly coveted in Europe.

In 1717, Augustus the Strong purchased a palace along the Elbe river in Dresden which was called the “Dutch Palace.” He envisioned renovating it into a “Porcelain Palace,” filling the first floor with Chinese and Japanese porcelain and the second with Meissen porcelain.

One of the five items in the Dresden State Art Collections is pictured in this image provided by the institution. (C) Porzellansammlung, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Photo: Adrian Sauer.

In Europe at the time, it was fashionable to have porcelain display rooms in palaces. The Dutch Palace later came to be called the Japanese Palace, and its porcelain tableware is said to have been used for wedding banquets and other meals.

However, Augustus the Strong’s son, who succeeded him, had little interest in the porcelain collection, and the building’s conversion into the Porcelain Palace remained unfinished. The porcelain there was removed around 1763.

Nevertheless, detailed catalogs had been produced for the king’s collection, and it emerged that about 8,200 items had entered the Dresden State Art Collections. The bases of these pieces were marked with “palace numbers” including letters and symbols.

The Imari ware bowl held at the Kyushu Ceramic Museum in Arita, Saga Prefecture, is seen in this image provided by the museum.

In the international collaborative research project, work was conducted to confirm the whereabouts of the porcelain bearing those palace numbers, which had apparently been dispersed throughout the world.

Sakuraba surveyed 24 institutions in Japan that held Imari ware, and found there were at least eight pieces at four institutions, including four at the Kyushu Ceramic Museum and two at the Idemitsu Museum of Arts in Tokyo. Two bowls, held respectively at the Kyushu Ceramic Museum and the Imari Nabeshima Gallery bear the same title: “Iroe tori maku sakura botan mon wa-tsunagi sukashi-zara” (Openwork connected-ring dish with colored picture, bird, curtain, cherry blossom and peony design). The pieces bear the mark “N:316+” with “N:” meaning “No.” and the cross being the symbol that was used by the palace to denote Japanese porcelain.

According to the Dresden State Art Collections, the same palace number was included in a catalog created in 1779, with the description “Thirteen dishes, painted with birds and flowers and having openwork rims, various sizes. 1 in poor condition. No. 316.” This was evidence that the two bowls in Japan were once part of the same collection. The bowls were made in the kinrande, or gold brocade style, a technique that emerged in late 17th to early 18th-century Imari ware featuring color pictures and gold decoration with glazing.

The Imari ware porcelain bowl kept at the Imari Nabeshima Gallery bears the palace number N:316+ on its base. (Photo courtesy of the Imari Municipal Board of Education)

But how did these bowls end up in Europe in the first place?

During the early Edo period, China was the main producer of porcelain, but in the 1610s, Japan’s Arita region started producing the ceramic ware. In 1639 the Japanese shogunate launched a period of national seclusion, and banned trade with countries other than China and the Netherlands. At the time, China was transitioning from the Ming to the Qing dynasty, which resulted in a drastic reduction of porcelain exports. As if to fill that gap, Arita porcelain began to gain attention.

“Imari ware was extremely popular in Europe and there was high demand for it, so the 13 bowls were probably exported immediately after being produced,” Sakuraba conjectured. Based on the period that kinrande-style porcelain was produced and the fact that kinrande was intended for Europe, Sakuraba said, “There’s a high possibility the pieces were exported from Nagasaki via a Chinese vessel, and then taken to the Netherlands on a Dutch ship.”

The Japanese Palace holding the Dresden Porcelain Collection is pictured in this photo provided by the institution. (C) Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Photo: David Brandt.

It remains unclear why the items in the set became separated, but according to Sakuraba, many of the pieces collected in sets were sold as “duplicates” between 1853 and 1854. Later, dishes stored in private collections in Europe and at museums were sold, and a Japanese person who purchased them is believed to have brought the bowls back to Japan. The Imari ware in Japan today that was originally intended for Europe is referred to as “homecoming Imari” and most of it in fact falls under this category.

The bowl at the Kyushu Ceramic Museum was purchased from a Kyoto dealer in antiques in 1982, but its historical trail before that remains obscure. Similarly, the piece at the Imari Nabeshima Gallery was bought from a dealer in the city in 1999, but its provenance before that is said to remain unknown.

Page 64 of a catalog of collected porcelain created in 1779 shows the palace number 316 at the top right, in this photo from the porcelain collection of the Dresden State Art Collections. (C) Porzellansammlung, Staat.

Sakuraba commented, “Considering that these two pieces are in Japan, it wouldn’t be surprising for others to be anywhere in the world.” The kinrande design may seem extravagant to people today, but it is evident that such beauty was highly valued in Europe at the time. It is a wonder to think just what kind of journey those bowls made over the space of several centuries.

The project to digitize images of Japanese and Chinese porcelain in the Dresden Porcelain Collection can be viewed online at the following link: https://royalporcelaincollection.skd.museum/home

(Japanese original by Shinichi Nishiwaki, Saga Bureau)

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