Monumental Meiji vase ‘rediscovered’ in a Californian restaurant comes to auction

Berkeley, California: Spenger's restaurant, dining room. Photo copyright Lee Foster. Photo # california123390

For over a century, a monumental 8ft (2.44m) high Meiji cloisonné vase provided the focal point to one of the San Francisco Bay Area’s oldest restaurants.

Extracted from Learn Antiques Gazette | Roland Arkell

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And, for over a century it seems no one was aware that this vase was one of the more spectacular works created for the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago (also known as the World’s Fair).

The vase will be offered for sale at Clars Auction Gallery of Oakland, California, on February 17 with an estimate of $30,000-50,000.

As shown in an archival photo, this magnificent vase was created as part of a triptych – a pair of vases and a censer – that at the time were dubbed ‘the largest examples of cloisonné enamel ever made’.

The details of the commission are well known. The project was conceived by Shin Shinwoda, the Special Councilor for Arts of the Imperial Commission to the Exposition with the manufacture trusted to Shirozayemon Suzuki of Yokohama and Seizayemon Tsunekawa of Nagoya.

Working to designs by Araki Kampo (1831-1915), a celebrated Nihonga artist, a team of craftsmen took over four years to complete the project that provided the centrepiece to Japan’s stand at the World’s Fair.

The triptych of cloisonné vases as displayed at the 1893 Columbian Exposition. The vase on the left resides in the Khalili collection. The censer is in the collection of Hirose Atsushi at the Tokyo National Museum while the vase on the right comes up for sale at Clars on February 17. Image: Courtesy of UC Riverside California Museum of Photography.

Today, the censer resides in the collection of Hirose Atsushi at the Tokyo National Museum while the other vase forms part of the Khalili collection in Oxford. Since 1895, the second vase was considered missing.

It had however, been quietly residing in the main dining room at Spenger’s Fresh Fish Grotto in Berkeley – evidently acquired in 1894 by Frank Spenger when elements of the World’s Fair exhibit moved to the California Midwinter Fair.

Deric Torres, decorative arts specialist at Clars, is handling the sale for the Spenger family. He recalls dining in the restaurant on numerous occasions and was always struck by ‘the vase’. “It is so exciting to now be able to uncover its amazing history and to discover its significance,” he said.