On August the 23rd, 2011 at 1:51 p.m., I was standing in the lobby of our design studio when our 25-pound, bronze Meiji-period elephant sculpture began rocking forward and back as if it had come alive. And indeed it had: at that exact moment a magnitude 5.8 earthquake struck outside Washington, DC and rocked our elephant in Virginia Beach.
Why did this pivoting pachyderm rock back and forth rather than sideways, or simply fall over?
Because he was designed to represent an Asian bull elephant in full charge: his right front leg and left rear leg extended; as in life, his weight perfectly balanced between raised trunk and pointed tail. He’s a marvelous example of Japanese Meiji craftsmanship and bronze casting.
From 1178 AD to November 9, 1867 AD the Samurai Shogun warlords ruled Japan. The role of Mikado/Emperor was never abolished but had been reduced to nothing more than a figurehead under the Shogun’s authority. On that November day the last Shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, tendered his resignation to the reigning Mikado, the 14-year-old Mutsuhito, the 122nd Mikado of the Chrysanthemum Throne.
The Japanese imperial restoration occurred on January 3, 1868 and with it came the dawn of modern Japan. Mikado Mutsuhito renamed his throne Meiji -- Enlightened Rule -- to honor the reinstatement of the Mikado as Japan’s legitimate ruler. Mutsuhito ruled for 44 years.
For many centuries the Samurai warriors fought in the most magnificent armor; wielding swords, bows and arrows, and lances created in the workshops of renowned artisans.
These weapons of war were as much fine art as killing tools. When the Samurai period ended, these artisans found little demand for their skills. However, 14 years prior to Tokugawa Yoshinobu’s resignation, Commodore Matthew C. Perry, USN, inadvertently supplied these workshops with the economic impetus to continue their craftsmanship.
His flotilla of four American warships forced Japan to open its economy to trade with the United States and Europe, ending centuries of isolation and giving the artisans access to the West’s rising demand for exotic Eastern luxury objects.
Our Meiji-period bronze elephant is a result of this tradition, dating back to the 12th Century AD.
We acquired it at Prozzo Auction House in Rutland, Vermont. The first time our elephant came up for auction at Prozzo’s we were outbid by a collector of rare Asian art. We had no idea the elephant was so valuable.
Fast forward a few years and we get a call from Bob Prozzo: the collector had passed away and Prozzo was auctioning the estate. Bob had informed the executor that the elephant should be sent to a Boston or New York auction house to get a higher price, but the executor was keen on liquidating the estate in Vermont.
We were not in Vermont at the time of the auction so we were on the phone, bidding on the elephant while loading a truck of antiques going to Vermont. This time we were the winning bidders.
I would now like to shift the story to the April 2016 issue of Interior Design magazine, where Van Cleef & Arpels’ new Paris flagship shop is featured. On page 240, on a floating shelf in the VIP room, stands a very similar bronze elephant from the private collection of Jacques Arpels.
We are very fortunate to have our marvelous elephant in our collection and to offer it for $10,740.
The approximately 25-pound sculpture is about 29” long, 18” high, 7” wide. It stands on a hardwood base 32” long by 13”. Bone -- not ivory -- tusks, can be shipped internationally.