Monday, June 24, 2013

The Hare With The Amber Eyes

In 2001, Edmund de Waal inherited a collection of 264 netsuke from his great-uncle Iggy.

A netsuke is a tiny, detailed Japanese carving, once used as a sort of button or toggle worn on a cord at the belt. They usually date from the 17th or 18th century. The collection de Waal inherited from Iggy was extraordinary, not only because the carvings were exquisite and valuable, but because they’d been in his family for generations, and were one of the few remnants of what was once an enormous art collection.

In The Hare With The Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance, de Waal describes how his family bought the netsuke and what they did with them.

The author’s family were the Ephrussi, fabulously wealthy Jewish brokers and bankers who had moneymaking outposts in Odessa, Vienna, Paris, and Athens. Charles Ephrussi lived in Paris, and as the second son of his branch of the family he had no business responsibilities: he devoted his life to collecting, curating, and writing about art. He was a tastemaker and a major patron of the Impressionists. It was he who originally bought the netsuke in 1871, when Japanese art was all the rage.

Charles gave the netsuke to Victor Ephrussi, his favorite nephew, on his wedding day. Victor and his wife lived in a gigantic marble palace on the Ringstrasse in Vienna. Unlike Charles’s chic Paris apartment, filled with lovingly-selected artworks, this marble pile was crammed of generations of stuff. The netsuke ended up in Victor’s wife’s dressing-room, where the children were allowed, once in a while, to play with them.

The Ephrussi fell in the twentieth century as the forces of anti-Semitism rose. When the Nazis seized Austria, their assets (including their homes, books, art collections, and clothes) were taken. Many of them did not make it out of Europe to safety.

So how did the 264 netsuke remain in Ephrussi hands, to be passed down from Great Uncle Iggy to de Waal?

The Hare with the Amber Eyes is a really fascinating story, a chronicle of one family’s passage through turbulent times.

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