Etnografica 1

‘Even when one is no longer attached to things, it’s still some-thing to have been attached to them; because it was always for reasons which other people didn’t grasp… Well, now that I’m a little too weary to live with other people, these old feelings, so personal and individual, that I had in the past, seem to me – it’s the mania of all collectors – very precious.

I open my heart to myself like a sort of vitrine, and examine one by one all those love affairs of which the world can know nothing. And of this collection to which I’m now much more attached than to my others, I say to myself, rather as Mazarin said of his books, but in fact with the least distress, that it will be very tiresome to have to leave it all.’    - Marcel Proust

The hare with the amber eyes

Edmund de Waal, ceramist living in London, inherited 264 old, Japanese netsukes and then researched how the collection was passed on and inherited. In relating that history he describes the life of his ancestors. How they became rich as grain traders in the Ukraine and set up banking houses in Vienna and Paris.

At the same time the book sketches the emergence of Japonism in Paris. After the USA navy commodore Mathew C. Perry enforced secluded Japan to interact with the rest of the world in 1854, French art dealers were quick to introduce the first lacquer boxes and ivory netsukes in Europe. The light, cheerful and colourful simplicity of the Japanese style instantly became popular in Paris art circles.

netsuke hare group

Faraway lands have only been discovered after we have been there – nearly every people makes that absurd claim at some point in its history. Their departing and not always returning scion is praised as a heroic explorer.

Also the undersigned believed as a twenty-three year old that he was unique when returning after seven years from the Himalayas with wonderful jewellery, utensils and art pieces.

sier kett marocco

sier kett

As for Nepal, I was indeed one of the first, small-scale western merchants during the early seventies. No big deal, the landlocked country had only opened its borders to the outside world in 1951. Other travellers to other countries  - India, Indonesia or Thailand – came back with incense, hash, hookahs, embroidered clothing – whether or not for their own use.


The ancient reputation of the Dutch as world travellers was solely based on their seafaring. Very few travelled over land any further than Italy or Egypt. Beyond there the journey changed into a slow, dangerous and expensive expedition, depending on departing caravans, money changers, local physicians and medicines, and so on.

Few Dutch know that their country had its own Marco Polo in the eighteenth century - Samuel van der Putte (Vlissingen 1690-Batavia 1745) – but then again, this wanderer deliberately wiped out his trail.

deux cheveau

Only after the second world war did the first beetles and ugly ducks dare to venture beyond Italy, Turkey, Afghanistan. But also old milk vans, double deckers, or even reanimated ambulances dared to find out how far they could get and how far it remained safe.

Some got engine trouble in the Karakoram, others one too many chillum in India – the die hards stranded at the feet of the Himalayas: the valley of Kathmandu.


basantapur demonstratie-5

Exhausted and worn out, all kinds of colourful vehicles stood for sale along the old palace wall. Often for weeks. Until the owner started out of his daily dopey cloud: his visa was expiring! That was the moment local buyers had waited for: the prices simply crashed.

Changing rupees into dollars was hard and always a rip-off. With the money they usually preferred to buy clothes, thankas or rice paper prints. Some started small boutiques at home and returned, this time by air.

In the eighties Kashba sometimes took a stall at fairs with names like Trouvaille where collectors of porcelain dolls, crystal bonbonnières or silver knitting needle cases condescendingly passed by; where ignorance is bliss… so much for the famed global minded seafarers.

As an elderly man remarked: ‘I don’t wonder how you got all these strange things, I just wonder how you will ever get rid of them.’

netsuke man figure red

At home a quiet strife arose between those who returned from faraway lands and the stuffy curators of museums, who derived their expertise from antiquated, colonial books that not uncommonly narrated about magical rites of pagan natives and primitive tribes and so on.

It was only in the nineties, after Uncle Bill and Aunt Betty dared to book a flight – preferably to Amerika but Indonesia was a lot cheaper and still safe with Neckermann or De Boer & Wendel Travel – that I did no longer need to explain all the time that Nepal is not a part of India, that Tibet is as large as Western Europe, and that China had little to do anymore with Mao’s communism. Especially the latter.

Yet, there had always been some people who would actually see the beauty of ethnographica – even when these objects did not stem from Our Indies.

netsuke man figure

Once an elderly collector told me about a certain Mr. Posthuma, a bon vivant who travelled the world before WWII as a fine carpenter. He was dashingly dressed in cape and hat and regularly brought yonder begotten children home.

Later on, some of his children started a basement shop, right opposite the church now known as ‘Paradiso’. There they sold the objects their father sent from distant lands for their sustenance.

Among which quite a few netsukes.

‘When the eldest daughter finally stopped with the little shop,’ the elderly collector recalled, ‘she invited me to their home, where these children were living together. In the attic there were still numerous unopened wooden boxes that father had sent.’

The Gallery Lemaire website runs an amusing and informative newspaper article written by Finette Lemaire, third generation of their ‘trading company in the field of ethnographics’ which was founded in 1920; in the beginning the house sold carpets as well.

Verzamelen Lemaire

‘Look at that,’ the elderly collector points out on the old picture of Finette’s parents next to the newspaper article, ‘that mask over there, at her feet, that’s hanging in my home.’

Japans scherm

Naturally it is impossible to say exactly when and where trade in ethnographics started in Europe. Just think of the many sorts of things that came along with the stream of porcelain from China through the centuries.

Also the public interest changed significantly over the years. For example: it is hard to find an African art gallery in Amsterdam, while there were at least ten of them only a decade ago.

japanse tijger

The hare with the amber eyes presents a good impression of how Japonism inspired Parisian art circles in the eighteen fifties. Only then did western Europe become familiar with oriental as well as negro art, which were somehow seen as both primitive as well as magical-mystical and modern - the labels naturally typify the Europeans.

Japanese netsuke

In the Dutch dictionary Van Dale etnografica is an entry with the definition as anthropological objects, not per se antique – the addition is in itself a topic for later.

visite etiket

Of course, the label is a lot shorter than the definition presented by the first Amsterdam ethnic galleries: jewellery, (religious) art and utensils from faraway lands, of all periods.

Yet, it remains an old, colonial, slightly derogatory word – perhaps till our associations will have paled.

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But will it still matter then? At the end of the 20th century dealers in ethnographics covered roughly all cultures of distant lands, from Pakistani and Papuas to Peruvians.

There seems to be more specialization nowadays, partly because of the immigration of people from those distant lands: now you can find Indian, Afghan, Moroccan, Ethiopian, Chinese and Turkish shops. So far they mainly offer food, cheap clothes and fancy jewellery.

Nowadays, you can find objects from any corner of the world on markets and in auctions.

IMG 0066

And it is not uncommon for these goods to be then bought by traders from that specific country to be resold at home, as is the case with China nowadays.

In short, along with the etnografica-trade, the old association with the word etnografica will no doubt change all by itself.

netsuke mouse




tAll photographs and texts © Kashba, Ais Loupatty & Ton Lankreijer. Webdesign: William Loupatty.