Based on Sakamoto Gorō, ed. Julia Meech, Eight Parts Full: A Life in the Tokyo Art Trade, Special Issue of Impressions, Japanese Art Society of America, 2011

The age of archaic bronze can be determined by discerning the right timbre of the sound it makes when struck. Any attunement I have achieved comes from making a thousand false notes. *

“A thousand false notes” is an exaggerated exercise in humility but what rings true is that Sakamoto Gorō (fig. 1) in his career as an antiques dealer, collector and connoisseur spanning almost seventy years has achieved true mekiki, the expert’s capacity to judge authenticity that goes far beyond simply having a good eye for art. A rigorously self-critical man he has learned from his mistakes. “One’s failures are the foundation of success” has been a guiding principle of his life. His autobiography, first serialized in the Nikkei newspaper in December of 1996, is more a catalogue of his early failures than his considerable successes in his Tokyo shop, Fugendō, the Tokyo Bijutsu Club and auction rooms in London, New York and Paris. With dogged determination, daring, constant study and what he calls his “fighting spirit” he has bought and sold some of the finest works of Chinese, Japanese, Korean and ancient Middle Eastern art.

Fig. 1 Sakamoto Gorō in his room at Grosvenor House, London, 1962

Fig. 2 Sakamoto Gorō’s mother

Sakamoto’s life has been a rags-to-riches tale, both figuratively and literally. He was barely one day old when on 1st September 1923 the Great Kantō Earthquake devastated Yokohama. His mother (fig. 2) rushed back into their destroyed house to save her newborn son, his brother, sister and his father pinned beneath a beam with a broken hip. The city in flames around her, she hoisted her injured husband over her shoulder, tucked Gorō tucked in her kimono, put her other son on her back tugged her daughter along and shepherded her family to safely. His father never recovered from his injuries and was an invalid until his death eight years later. The burden of raising seven children fell upon Gorō’s mother’s shoulders. The family moved to live with relatives in Hachiōji City, 40 km west of metropolitan Tokyo. Life was hard: his mother walked into the countryside to buy eggs to peddle along with candy, candles, matches and sundries from the front of their house.

From the time I was little, I was always a nervy kid and liked to gamble.

In 1936 at the age of twelve after six years of elementary school, Gorō was apprenticed to a wholesaler of dried fish in Yokohama. At the end of the war with his master’s business in ruins, he returned to Hachiōji and turned to the used clothing business and trading on the black market with the Occupation forces. While he had learned to judge the quality of dried fish at a glance, he was confounded by imitation material, misjudged the quality of merchandise and with mistake after mistake lost money. Sixty years later he wryly wrote, “Perhaps this was the beginning of my long struggle with fakes.” Gorō turned his back on used clothing and the dangers of the black market to try the antique business about which at his own admission he “knew absolutely nothing.”

if one fears taking risks, there is no chance of ever truly succeeding in the world

Sakamoto travelled from one antique market to another, buying what he thought had value and selling it in another. He poured his energy into study, visiting antique shops and buying as many art books as he could afford. His first purchase of a painting turned out to be a fake, but he continued with the steady determination that has marked his career to buy and sell within the trade though without much financial success. Through his association with the owner of a tea-utensil shop he gained special admittance to the prestigious Tokyo Bijutsu Club (in 1962 he would become its director) that included the leading art dealers in the country. Throughout his career Sakamoto educated himself by learning from dealers and collectors more experienced and expert than he. He writes that he was “blessed with the ability to forge a long-lasting relationship after meeting a person once.”

Fig. 3 Fugendo signboard

Our business is a lot like sparring. Going right for the final strike will never work. But if you ceaselessly attack with small jabs, you can score an unexpectedly big finish. With dogged persistence, opportunities to parry will arise.

In the summer of 1947, he turned twenty-four and left Hachiōji for Tokyo where he set up shop. Inspired by a couplet from a Chinese poem, “Though the peach tree does not call, admirers beat a path to it” he named the shop Fugendō (fig. 3), combining the Japanese characters “does not call” and “path” – a prescient name for what the future held. His first success came by travelling to the north of Japan to buy colorful Imari-style dishes and plates that he sold to the American soldiers. He also dealt in Japanese iron tea kettles but with limited funds could afford only unexceptional examples. In the early post-war years, he earned a profit with his feet, travelling twenty days out of the month to the provinces looking for goods. Not owning a car, when he returned on the train lugging his baggage full of bulky cheap goods, his brother would meet him at the station with a bicycle trailer borrowed from a nearby liquor store. But Sakamoto knew that the Imari were “middling wares” not handled by high-class art dealers and if he wanted to join their ranks he would have to trade only in old works of art.

I prided myself on being the most daring purchaser of objects in the postwar era.

Sakamoto learned first hand how difficult it was to become a connoisseur: he bought fakes and misunderstanding the market bought high and sold low. He first thought the best strategy for success was to deal in small objects with private customers and acquire real masterworks to sell to fellow dealers but soon realized that this was “one of the biggest mistakes of my life” and that “Success in this business comes precisely by selling fine works to private clients.” In the early 1950s he studied diligently about Chinese wares. Out of the fire of failure, came an expansive and discriminating eye. One of his first successes was the purchase of a Southern Song Guan ware in the shape of an ancient jade cong (fig. 4) at he later sold to the connoisseur Hirota Matsushige who in turn later donated the piece to the Tokyo National Museum. He bought a two panel screen, “Old Pines and Wisteria” by Sakai Hōitsu that later also became part of the Matsushige collection donated to the Tokyo National Museum.

Fig. 4 cong-shaped Guan vase, Southern Song Dynasty
© Tokyo National Museum, Gift of Hirota Matsushige (TG2167)

When other Japanese dealers in the post-war era shied away from archaic Chinese bronzes because of their limited knowledge and the limited market among Occupation forces and the new money Japanese, Sakamoto forged into this area though he admitted that initially his knowledge “was limited to telling bronze from iron.” He honed his eye and triumphed in this “perilous game”: in 1968 he made the largest post-war donation to the Tokyo National Museum when in honor of his revered mother he gave ten Shang and Zhou bronzes to celebrate the opening of the Museum’s Asian Wing (fig. 5). In 2002 he again demonstrated his profound generosity by donating 380 archaic bronzes to the Nara National Museum, now housed in their Sakamoto Wing.

Fig. 5 Bronze Pou Vessel with Animal Mask and Dragon Motifs, Late Shang Dynasty
© Tokyo National Museum, Gift of Sakamoto Kiku (TJ4785)

With the encouragement of Sir John Figgess (fig. 6), a British diplomat in Tokyo and later advisor to the Percival David Foundation, president of the Oriental Ceramics Society and director of Christie’s London, Sakamoto broadened his interest to lacquer not associated with tea practice. Examples of the rare quality of mekiki he acquired were the two exquisite seven-lobed Northern Sung dishes he sold to the Tokyo National Museum (fig. 7) and a Goryeo dynasty inlaid Sutra Box sold to the British Museum.

Fig. 6 Sakamoto Gorō flanked by G. St. G. M. Gompertz (left) and Sir John Figgess (right) in Cambridge, England

Fig. 7 Two Mallow-Shaped Lacquer Dishes, Song Dynasty 
© Tokyo National Museum (TH308)

I advanced step-by-step toward my dream of acquiring the best pieces in Japan and the entire world. For that reason, the Europeans used to call me “Little Napoleon.”

In 1960 Sakamoto made his first trip abroad and over the next two decades made close to a hundred trips to Europe, armed with wide-ranging curiosity and a strong, if not reckless, will. He admits that he “was terrible at foreign languages and did not understand any English beyond ‘ABC,’” but “relied instead on “pluck and intuition,” my rallying cry in all my dealings.” These attributes served him well. He was one of the few Japanese dealers or collectors to attend the London auctions in the 1960s and when he bought a medium size polychrome enameled Jiajing jar (now in Tokyo’s Hatakeyama Memorial Museum of Fine Art) in London, he made the London Times -- his friend Sir John Figgess good naturedly wrote to him that Prime Minister Yoshida Shigeru had been the first Japanese after the war to be mentioned in the Times and Sakamoto was the second. Before the war only two pieces of Guan ware were known in Japan and when a Southern Song Guan vase came up for auction in London in 1970, Sakamoto mortgaged his house and flew to London where in spirited bidding he lost out to his friend Edward Chow (fig. 8). Two years later he was the successful bidder at what he considers to be one of the high points of his career, if not its pinnacle.

Fig. 8 Sakamoto Gorō and Edward T. Chow at Chateau-Banquet in Geneva, circa 1970s

I maintain now, as I did in 1972, that the purchase of the Yuan peony jar contributed to the worldwide boom in Chinese ceramics, coaxing more masterpieces out of hiding.

He came to London prepared to sell his entire inventory and if necessary his shop in order to buy the Yuan Dynasty underglaze-blue and copper red-wine jar (guan) carved with openwork quatrefoil panels (fig. 9) offered at Christie’s that was at the time thought to be the only example of this type in the world (Only three other similar jars are now known, in the British Museum, Hebei Provincial Museum and the Palace Museum in Beijing). He triumphed, purchasing the jar that had been used as an umbrella stand for £220,500 ($500,000) which at the time was the highest price paid for an Asian work of art at auction. Even after he secured the prize, he had severe stomach pains and difficulty breathing. He did not then or now believe that what he paid was too high. “Good things are expensive,” he wrote. If the Yuan peony was considered the “Queen” of Chinese ceramics, Sakamoto calls the Yuan underglaze cobalt blue wine jar with fish and aquatic plants he bought several years later at the Tokyo Bijutsu Club as worthy of the title, “Emperor.” He considered the jar superior to the blue and white jar at the Brooklyn Museum that he had seen and much admired. He was so overwhelmed with his success that he took the jar home and jumped into the bath with it to wash over the years of grime and then sat down for supper with the jar as his guest.

Fig. 9 Blue and White and Copper-Red Jar, Yuan dynasty Private Collection

The business of art dealers is to find these gems and reveal them to the world.

In the late 1970s, Sakamoto retired formally from Fugendō for health reasons and moved to Kyoto. But he has not withdrawn from the world of Asian art and most definitely not ceased to exercise the true mekiki acquired over the years. Having recently celebrated his ninetieth birthday, he continues to be an international treasure, exercising the sixth sense of the connoisseur – divining “the spirit or ‘atmosphere’ given off by the work of art” and detecting “the true nature of the object.”

* All quotes in italics from Sakamoto Gorō, ed. Julia Meech, Eight Parts Full: A Life in the Tokyo Art Trade, Special Issue of Impressions, Japanese Art Society of America, 2011.

Sakamoto Gorō
Odawara, Summer 2010
Photograph by Nicolas Chow

                                             Chinese Art Through the Eye of Sakamoto Gorō – The Clark Ding

                                                           8 April 2014 | Hong Kong