Collecting Japanese Biscuit Barrels

Are some people born collectors and others not?  I tend to think so.  I love to surround myself with beautiful  objects, and if I was asked to name what I collect I would generalize and say art,  but I am not a collector at heart.  I have never made a conscious decision to collect any one thing in particular, and then motivated myself to seek only that to build a collection.   My wife Jeanine is a true collector.  She’s wired that way. 

When we first started attending auctions, seeking to buy some inexpensive but interesting furnishings for our new home, Jeanine decided to collect enamelware, focusing on blue and white.  Over about a six year period this was her focus.  What drove her to get out early in the morning to go to the yards sales, shops and auctions. In the early 80’s we even planed a one week, two-lane blacktop holiday, where we drove across the Eastern United States looking for unusual blue and white pieces to add to her growing collection.   It was great fun, and exciting when we would encounter something special, and it provided us an excellent excuse for just getting out there and experiencing other places, and people. This was before we had a credit card.  We just took a chunk of money, drove wherever the wind took us in an easterly direction and when we were approximately half through the pile, we turned around and headed back home.  At least that was the concept.  When we hit the half way mark we were getting pretty close to the Eastern Seaboard so we decided to keep going to put a toe in the sea, and then drive directly home.  As it happened we popped into an Antique store on the coast in Maine as our last stop before the retreat,  and met a friendly, and trusting gentleman who had a big sign above his desk “Ask me about my motel”, so I said “o.k. I’ll bite, what about your hotel?” “Well you should stay there.  It’s right on the beach and it’s clean and inexpensive.”  “Sounds great, but we’re almost out of money so we will have to check it out next time.”  “Do you have a cheque?” Well yes, but would you want to accept an out of country cheque?”  “Why not? I can tell you are decent people.”  So we wrote a cheque for a couple more night’s accommodation.  He even tacked on a bit extra for some spending money.  We had a wonderful time there.  I remember it as a golden time, walking along the coast, and enjoying the beach with the then (probably) four year old Cassandra.  Eating clam strips in a little joint down on the beach.  Not a care in the world.  Then we packed up, said our good-byes to our new friend, and drove straight home in a marathon 20 hour drive. 

The natural evolution of collecting is to initially to buy widely, and of various conditions.  As a collection develops and you’ve got all the common stuff it takes longer to come across the rare  things and eventually the space allotted for your collection fills, and then if you are truly motivated to collect, you might move on to find something else interesting, and start the process all over again.

“Belleek” pattern Japanese biscuit barrel

This happened to Jeanine after about six years of collecting the blue and white enamel.  One day she decided that was it, she had enough.  She would sell off the enamelware,  and start again. Her next collection would be ceramic Japanese biscuit barrels. What interested her was that after WW2 the Japanese began to produce the then popular biscuit barrel inexpensively in many different styles, often imitating established pottery forms of Europe, and England along with some of their own culture.  They were not too large and fun to see gathered together in a hanging cupboard. Also, she was aware there were lots of them out there, and they were inexpensive to buy.  She set her objective at collecting 100 barrels of different styles.  It took her 20 years to accomplish this, but when she hit about 135 barrels about the year 2000 that was it.   We now have about twenty of her favourites, and the rest have found new homes.

Donatello pattern. First barrel bought from Marcel Gosselin

Her first buy was from our old friend, the Quebec picker, Marcel Gosselin.  This “Donatello” themed pot which she bought for five dollars.   She went on to usually pay from $25 to $45 for most.  The highest she paid was $145 for an elaborate, larger pot of Chinese design.  That was towards the end of her collecting about 2000. Then as before, one day she made the decision that that was it.  No more biscuit barrels.   We talked about photographing all one hundred pieces before she sold the collection with the idea of releasing a little coffee table book on the subject, but like so many good ideas, it came and went.  Still, we had great fun making the collection, and looking at them for all those years.

Japanese design with rows and rows of tiny faces

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