A superb print of a great kabuki theatre actor by the mysterious Toshusai Sharaku provided the highlight of Bonhams' Japanese Art auction in London yesterday (November 6).
The enigmatic Sharaku emerged as one of the finest woodblock printmakers in Japan in 1794, producing an array of works for just 10 months before disappearing from society. Little is known about his life, with some scholars believing that the prints are actually the work of several artists rather than one person.
This theory stems from the belief that the name Sharaku may have been taken from the Japanese word sharakusai, which translates as "nonsense". Other scholars believe that the prints may have been created by Katsushika Hokusai - creator of the legendary Great Wave off Kanagawa - who disappeared from the art community at the same time as the Sharaku prints appeared.
Despite the uncertainty surrounding their creator, Sharaku prints are highly sought after by collectors and are exceedingly rare due to the short length of time in which they were made. The piece at auction is typical of Sharaku's work, depicting the kabuki theatre actor Segawa Tomisaburo II.
Tomisaburo - a male actor - is portrayed here as Yadorigi, the wife of Ogish Kurando in the play Hana-ayame Buroku Soga. Like in English theatre, it was common at the time for male actors to play female roles.
The print sold for £73,250 ($117,134) against a £70,000-80,000 estimate, as the second highest selling lot of the auction.
The top lot was an "unusually large and bold" netsuke (a small carved container) of a tiger, which was created by noted carver Naito Toyomasa in the 19th century. It sold for an impressive £103,250 ($165,091) to become the most valuable Toyomasa item ever sold at auction.
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