Edmund de Waal, a world renown ceramicist, has written a family memoir tracing the movements of a collection of netsuke he inherited that came into the family in the 1870s. First I should say that netsuke (pronounced netski) are small carvings made of ivory, bone or wood the Japanese used for clothing in a way similar to the use of a watch fob. The few I've seen are utterly appealing, these little funny and beautiful animals, people, or magical creatures. This link takes you to a Japanese antique gallery specializing in netsuke.
When people set out to research family history, it's these people they are hoping to find. The Ephrussi family cornered the market on wheat in Odessa; one brother moved to Paris, another to Vienna and they both built wonderous palaces and were quite good at banking. The netsuke were acquired by Charles in Paris, at the time of the great craze for all things Japanese. Charles wrote about and collected art, including the Impressionists and is the figure in the tall hat and black coat in Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party. He led the sophisticated life, closely connected to the Jewish community in Paris, including his married mistress who lived nearby. The Dreyfus affair (the framing of a Jewish military officer that split the French people for 12 years until he was exonerated) made life very difficult for the Jewish people in Paris.
Charles gave the netsuke collection to his much younger cousin Viktor on the occasion of his marriage to Emmy in Vienna in 1899. The netsuke lived in a vitrine in Emmy's dressing room, where the children played with them as they visited with her while she dressed. You might think their time with the netsuke (and their mother) was limited, but she spent hours each day being dressed to live the beautiful life in Vienna in a palace on the Ringstrasse.
And then there was World War II. Emmy and Viktor's children had left Austria, but the parents remained too long. They barely were able to leave with only the clothes they wore. Emmy's long time lady's maid Anna was required to stay in the palace as the Germans catalogued and sent off all the goods and artworks there. She was able to preserve the collection of 250 netsuke by taking a few at a time to hide under her mattress. When Viktor and Emmy's daughter Elisabeth came back after the war, Anna was able to give them to her; Elisabeth recovered little else for the family even with years of work.
The netsuke then went to her brother Iggie who moved to Tokyo in 1947 where he became a successful businessman. The author, Elisabeth's grandson, made weekly visits to his great uncle in the 1990s when he was in Tokyo for a 2 year program as a ceramicist. The netsuke are in London where Edmund lives with his wife and 3 children.I have given just the bare bones of the journey of the netsuke and the families they lived with over the generations.
The author is present in the telling of the stories as he recounts his reactions to what he learns about the family members. He visits the palace in Paris where Charles lived when he acquired the netsuke and he visits the Ephrussi palace in Vienna (you can see the Votivekirche in the background). I learned about this book when Kathy mentioned it on a Facebook posting. An enthralling story, well told.
Edmund de Waal, The Hare with Amber Eyes, Picador, 2010, 354 pages.