Treasures from Japan

John Windsor reports on this month's auctions and antique fairs
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Spot the Japanese potters about to be appointed Living National Treasures - and earn a tidy sum. Pots and bowls made by favourites for the coveted title are in Bonhams' contemporary ceramics sale, Wednesday and Thursday, 13 and 14 November (6pm).

As soon as a potter is elevated to National Treasure status by the Japanese government, his work shoots up in value. Japanese collectors, unsatisfied by mere aesthetics, have always hankered after official stamps of approval and LNT is the most prestigious of all.

You could have bought a pot by Tatsuzo Shimaoka for as little as pounds 300, before he became a National Treasure this year. At Bonhams in June, a stoneware bottle vase of his fetched a record pounds 1,725.

Will Koike Shoko become the first female LNT? One of her enchanting, shell-like bowls is estimated to fetch pounds 700-pounds 1,000. Does Wakao Toshisada's family of hereditary potters give him a head start towards the title? The estimate of pounds 1,600-pounds 2,000 on his ovoid, blue-grey bowl with three looped feet suggests it may. Why not have a flutter on Kotsuke Kaneshige's stoneware vessel, estimate pounds 600-pounds 900? His father was a Living National Treasure.

Followers of form should note that the Metropolitan Museum of New York has bought work by Miyashita Zenji. His four-sided stoneware vase is estimated to sell for pounds 900-pounds 1,200.

If you want a quick kill rather than a long-term investment, take age into account. Takahashi Rakusai IV may not be a front-runner but he is 71, so the end of the race must be in sight. His flower vase with inscribed wooden box has an estimate of pounds 750-pounds 900.

Insiders will whisper to you that one Japanese potter who never moved from the starting-gate is celebrated as one of the 20th century's greatest. The irascible Kitaoji Rosanjin refused Living National Treasure status in 1955, incensed that one of his pupils, Toyozo Arakawa, had been awarded it before him. Rosanjin's life could be considered unfortunate. His putative father, a Shinto priest, committed suicide upon discovering that Rosanjin's real father was a lowly shrine worker who cremated the dead. Rosanjin's disgraced mother abandoned him and he was brought up by a policeman, who went mad and also committed suicide. His three marriages and two love- affairs each lasted less than a year. He died in 1959.

His pupil Arakawa's deep, round dish is estimated to fetch pounds 1,800-pounds 2,500. Rosanjin would be pleased to find that his own stoneware dish with angry- looking stripes has a higher estimate: pounds 2,800-pounds 3,500. The best-known LNT, Shoji Hamada (1894-1978), who helped Bernard Leach to set up his pottery in St Ives in the early Twenties, is represented by nine pieces ranging in estimate from pounds 200-pounds 300 for a 7in stoneware plate to pounds 3,500- pounds 4,500 for a, nineth-century-style bowl.

Bonhams is the world centre of the contemporary ceramics market. Pots are consigned to its auctions from America, Europe and Australia. The bidding may be tough, but you can bet it will get tougher in years to come.

Most households have a few mysterious-looking old utensils tucked away at the back of the kitchen cutlery drawer: a bone-handled, two-pronged fork, perhaps, or a fish knife with a mother-of-pearl handle.

Old eating utensils (the term distinguishes them from more recent silver flatware) have come into their own as collectables this year with the publication of two guidebooks. At Christie's South Kensington, the biggest collection at auction for over 30 years comes up on Wednesday (1pm). Much of the Vyvyan Myerson collection of 275 lots used to be in the Cultural History Museum in Cape Town.

Part of the fascination of old cutlery lies in knowing that eating was once a messy business. Until the second half of the 17th century, forks were used mainly for skewering meat on the serving dish. The mid-18th century brought a third prong. Forks were still no good for peas - but by then knife tips were spatulate and pea-friendly, instead of pointed. Until the mid-17th century, dinner guests were expected to bring their own eating utensils.

An inscribed, antler-handled steel knife and two-pronged fork of about 1760, reputedly a gift to Bonnie Prince Charlie, are estimated to fetch pounds 300-pounds 500. Six 19th-century bone-handled pieces, including a cased Regency combination knife and fork, carry no estimate: pounds 150 or less might buy them.

If you use old steel eating utensils, as some neo-Georgians do, you will find that they taste bitter. Britain's only dedicated dealer in old cutlery, Bill Brown of 153 Portobello Road, declares: "I'm a stainless man myself." Pre-17th-century cutlery used to be rare, he says, until metal detector enthusiasts started unearthing it.

At Covent Garden's Monday morning market, where more and more old eating utensils are appearing, antiquities dealer Nigel Mills offers a 5in bronze Roman spoon for pounds 30. I paid pounds 5 to Stephanie Hine, an occasional trader there, for an elegant 9in early Victorian three-pronged pickle fork with barley-twist ivory handle.

Guidebooks: `The Sheffield Knife Book: A History and Collectors' Guide' by Geoffrey Tweedale (Interleaf Productions, pounds 25); `Table Knives and Forks' by Simon Moore (Shire Album 320, pounds 2.25). Bill Brown (0181-650 3933), Nigel Mills (0181-504 2569), Stephanie Hine (0181-549 1945).

Fairs: Olympia Fine Art and Antiques, 13-19 November: 200 stands, prices pounds 50-pounds 100,000, with an exhibition of 10th-18th-century Chinese ceramics. National Hall, Olympia, Hammersmith Road, London W14 (0171-244 2219). Entry including catalogue, pounds 10.

London Photograph Fair: Saturday 16 November (11am-5pm), Bonnington Hotel, 92 Southampton Row, London WC1. Entry pounds 1.50 (01865-735119).

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