This wonderful book is an unusual affair. The Washington Post review described it as “A family history through Art.” An amazing history it is too. The author is Edmund de Waal, a successful English ceramic artist, though the family history he relates is not the De Waal, but the Ephrussi family. For Edmund’s grandmother was Elizabeth Ephrussi, a member of a once rich and powerful Jewish family. All that now remains of their art treasures is a collection of small Japanese netsuke. These are miniature sculptures in wood or ivory. They originally served a practical purpose, as toggles, but the more refined netsuke soon became collectors items. And one day in 1992, while on a scholarship in Tokyo, Edmund is introduced to the Ephrussi collection of netsuke, 264 in all, by his great uncle Iggie, who lived in Tokyo. Iggie would die a few years later, but his partner Jiro Sugiyama promised that the collection would go to Edmund when Jiro himself died. Thus begins Edmund’s fascination with the history of these netsuke and with his Ephrussi forebears.
This is a tale that starts in Odessa, where the Ephrussi were a rich banking and oil dynasty. From there the family branched out to Vienna and Paris. The book traces the journey of the collection of netsuke from their beginning in Paris in the latter part of the 19th century through to their re-appearance in Tokyo in 1992. While the netsuke provide the linking thread to the tale, the book becomes more a rediscovery of the Ephrussi family – their loves, marriages, intrigues and businesses. For the Ephrussi were among the leading elites of 19th century and early 20th century Europe, and notable promoters and collectors of art. The Ephrussi were also Jewish, though of the secular kind. Alas, this was to be of little avail. The first signs were the Dreyfus affair in France, to be followed by a rapid descent into Nazism and the final solution. All this is told in a measured and unsentimental way. The Hare with Amber Eyes is a very personal tale of one family’s experiences of the last 150 years or so. Highly recommended. You can see some of the netsuke, including the Hare with Amber Eyes, here.