ART MARKET / All that glitters is not sold: A dazzling collection of 19th-century lacquered 'inro' - Japanese medicine boxes - was sent to auction recently. Why were so few bidders interested?

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ANYONE who likes art is allowed to have favourites. Japanese lacquer of the late 18th and 19th centuries makes me gasp with pleasure. It combines brilliant pictorial qualities with a sophistication of technique unknown before or since . . . colour, glitter, human interest, and jokes. Yes, the Japanese even incorporate jokes in their art, mainly derived from fairy stories.

Dave and Sandy Swedlow, whose collection of 52 lacquer inro, or medicine boxes, was offered at Sotheby's on 31 March apparently shared my taste - and had the money to indulge it. The little boxes, 4 to 5 inches high, were valued by Sotheby's at huge prices, ranging from pounds 3,000 or so to pounds 50,000. It turned out, however, that these estimates were too high for today's market; only 16 out of the 52 boxes found buyers.

There are, of course, many more flops at auction than the Sotheby's and Christie's publicity machines would have us believe. But these boxes were dazzling of their kind and offered at the sort of prices collectors have been paying for inro. So there had to be some special circumstances behind the flop. After some digging, I think I can explain what happened.

Dave and Sandy Swedlow had been enthusiastic collectors of Japanese art since the 1960s; he died of cancer in January 1991 at the age of 85. They collected and subsequently sold a large group of Japanese swords and sword fittings - superb artistry was lavished on sword fittings in Japan; they bought 19th-century bronzes, ivories and paintings; they created a Japanese garden around their home at Corona del Mar, overlooking the Pacific. But their greatest love was lacquer and most especially inro, on which 19th-century lacquerers lavished the most extraordinary skill.

Dave Swedlow was a pioneering manufacturer in the field of acrylics; he made bullet-proof windows for cars, windows for aeroplanes, and even for a space capsule. Subtlety of material and precision of finish were what his business was about. It was natural that he should admire these qualities in Japanese lacquer.

Lacquer is the sap of a tree applied like a varnish to a wooden core but in many, many layers which are left to harden, then carved and manipulated; the lacquerers incorporated gold dust, ivory, mother of pearl and numerous different metals and stones in their vividly coloured, pictorial designs.

The small, multi-compartment boxes called inro were mainly used for carrying medicines and pills and were first made around 1600. The inro was suspended from a gentleman's belt on a silk cord and attached by a tiny carved button called a netsuke, on which extraordinary skill was also lavished. These miniature sculptures are even more widely collected than inro.

The Swedlows were careful to see that their netsuke and inro matched; an inro decorated with sea creatures has a netsuke formed as a clam. The couple amassed well over 100 pieces, but the interest of the collection lay in its sharp focus. They were only interested in the ornate inro of the 19th century, the period when the lacquerer's art reached its apogee.

By the late 18th century, the rich merchants of Tokyo - then known as Edo - and other cities, had amassed huge fortunes, which they lavished on fashion accessories, such as inro and netsuke. The families of lacquer artists - it was a skill passed on from father to son - stretched themselves to invent more original and exotic techniques.

One inro from the Swedlow collection was grudgingly acknowledged as very special by bidders and ran to a new auction price record of pounds 52,100. It depicts a samurai carrying off a demon in a moonlit landscape; the figures which decorate one side are realised in a subtle grey metal alloy called shakudo and inlaid into a black lacquer landscape of waving grasses; on the reverse, a willow tree with black lacquer foliage and a shakudo trunk is etched against a golden moon made from nashiji, a lacquer incorporating small flakes of gold and silver foil. The lacquerer, Hara Yoyusai, and the metal worker, Haruaki Hogen - both famous artists - have signed the piece. It was bought by Eskenazi, the London dealer, on behalf of a major collector.

But other marvels were ignored. For

example, an extraordinary inro decorated with ivory sumo wrestlers on one side and the referee tensed at his job on the other,

on a black and gold ground, which was estimated to fetch pounds 24,000 to pounds 28,000, was left unsold at pounds 15,000.

What was it all about? In the first place, too many dealers had already looked at the collection, wondered about buying and decided against. When David Swedlow was ill, he started to try to arrange the sale of the collection. 'He'd always looked after us,' Mrs Swedlow explained to me. 'But I told him not to worry. It didn't matter.'

Luigi Bandini, who handles Japanese art at Eskenazi's, the oriental art dealers in Piccadilly, had been to Corona del Mar and come away with 30 or so inro. 'They have all gone to private collectors,' he told me.

Some of the pieces included in Sotheby's sale had been offered for sale by Orientations, an Oriental art gallery in New York, at David Swedlow's request, shortly before his death. He set prices on them very much higher than Sotheby's estimates and they didn't sell. 'They were a little bit too high,' Mrs Swedlow admits. 'Lacquer prices were higher then than they are now.' The truth here is, I suppose, that the Swedlows were trying to get the kind of prices for their inro that top dealers charge. Since the dealers have to make a profit, they are not prepared to pay such prices themselves.

Barry Davies, another London specialist, did not buy anything at the sale. But that is because he is already well-stocked; he is holding an exhibition of 100 inro in June - including 15 or so lesser pieces bought from Mrs Swedlow last year and half a dozen from the collection of David Swedlow's sister, Anne Meselson. An inro by the famous artist Shibata Zeshin from the Swedlow collection will be priced around pounds 40,000- pounds 50,000, he tells me - the Zeshin in Sotheby's auction was left unsold at pounds 19,000.

Dealers have had better inro than the auction rooms in recent years. When Eskenazi's had a section of the Greenfield collection for sale in 1990, a red and gold lacquer ship sailing across a black lacquer sea, made by a famous 18th-century artist called Ritsuo, was sold to a Florida collector for pounds 100,000 - the highest price I have yet heard of.

Since those days the private market has gone quiet, according to Bandini. The main buyer of the kind of ornate 19th-century inro favoured by the Swedlows was a Japanese investor represented by the Tokyo dealer Mrs Wakayama. Their competitive auction bidding led to the 1980s price spiral. But art investment has gone out of fashion in Japan; Mrs Wakayama did not bother to come to the Swedlow sale.-

(Photographs omitted)