Edmund de Waal, a ceramic artist, is bequeathed a collection of 264 netsuke (small and intricate Japanese carvings) by a great-uncle living in Tokyo. They entered the once-wealthy Ephrussi family in the 1870s when a Paris-based relative, Charles, bought the collection, which he later gave to a Viennese cousin as a wedding gift.
In The Hare With Amber Eyes, de Waal tells the fabulously engaging story of how his family, originating in Odessa, established something of a trans-European trading and banking empire similar to the Rothschilds’. He follows the story of the netsuke to Vienna, where the Jewish Ephrussi have an inevitable assignation with history.
The Ephrussi escape Nazi Austria, but forfeit their business, property and art. Through the intervention of a maid the netsuke are saved, which leads de Waal to ask the question: “Why should they have got through this war in a hiding place, when so many hidden people did not?”
Cape Town art dealer Michael Stevenson’s PhD thesis, Art & Aspirations, deals with the role that art collecting played in the Randlords validating their mining fortunes. The Ephrussi family, having settled in Paris and Vienna, did much the same thing.
Regardless of how nouveau the riche, old objects trace a path through history, and de Waal has told a wonderful tale around these netsuke. The Hare With Amber Eyes is unquestionably one of my favourite reads of the year.