Chinese carved ivory fisherman

Made by Unknown (person) in Japan, 1870-1920.

Eisig (Egon) Starer (1903-1980), born Winograd, Poland ran away from home to Vienna, Austria in 1919. He lived in Vienna and studied industrial chemistry. On Hitler’s annexation of Austria, Egon and his wife Sabina fled Austria with visas to China, one of the few countries then accepting Jewish refugees. The Starers settled in the Jewish community in Shanghai and opened a factory to manufacture soap and other household items.

During the Japanese occupation, Egon made a name for himself whilst...


Human figurine, fisherman, carved ivory / wood, maker unknown, Japan, 1870-1920

A Japanese ivory carving of a fisherman on a wooden base. The fisherman is depicted with his mouth open, and uses his right hand to remove a hook from the mouth of a fish in a small basket. In his left hand he holds a fishing rod pointing upwards. The carving is mounted on a raised oval shaped wooden base.


200 mm
90 mm
60 mm


The art of ivory carving is 4000-5000 years old with the techniques and style involved in ivory carving remaining largely unchanged through many successive generations. Ivory is a costly and durable material with the shape, colour and texture of the material influencing the design.

Ivory is derived from the teeth or tusks of mammals. Tusks from the Asian and African elephants are the most popular for ivory carving. Ivory is also culled from walrus, narwhal, wild boar and rhinoceros.

Ivory is a medium that is easy to work with and is used to produce a variety of functional and ornamental items such as articles of personal and household use and the embellishment of furnishing and interior of buildings.

Ivory carving techniques were first introduced to Japan from China. It is believed to have first gained popularity when the Japanese aristocracy began to copy the Tang culture of China in the 8th century. It is sometimes difficult to distinguish between ancient Japanese and Chinese ivory carvings owing to the level of mastery achieved by the Japanese from their Chinese tutors.

After suffering a decline for many centuries, the popularity of ivory carvings known as okimono in Japan, reached its height in the late 1700s to mid 1800s. Okimono were created for display in the tokonoma, an elevated alcove that was the focal point of the living area and was the only area in a Japanese home designated for display of a scroll, possibly a seasonal flower arrangement and a single okimono.

Ivory carvings became popular in the west after the forced entry into Yokohama Harbour by Commodore Perry of the United States Navy in 1853. Catering to perceived foreign tastes, figures were carved with an absence of chisel marks creating a smooth surface in contrast to the Japanese preference for bold carving that accentuated the round and flat chisel marks. To the Japanese aesthetic, this was evidence of an artist's forcefulness and directness in the creative process, the effect having the same appeal as brushstrokes in painting. This ivory carving with its smooth surface was produced for the western market.

This ivory carving of a fisherman exemplifies the characteristics prominent in okimono carving. Originating from the Japanese tradition of idol and mask carving, this sculptural piece is characterised by its realistic portrayal and faithful representation, spontaneous flowing lines, the mastery involved in capturing human emotion and feeling in a striking pose with no detail hidden or visible too insignificant to portray.

Common themes were developed from every day activities and provide an insight into aspects of Japanese life. The detail and complexity of the carving of the fisherman removing the hook from the mouth of the fish is a testament to the level of skill involved in producing high quality carvings.

In 1989, the Convention of Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) banned the trade of elephant-related products as the species is on the verge of extinction. Subsequently, the art of ivory carving is in decline due to an unavailability of material.
Unknown (person) 1870-1920


The carving was acquired by Eisig Starer in Shanghai in the 1940s, brought to Australia in 1947 and owned by his widow until her death in 1993 when it was acquired by the Museum according to the terms of his Will. Eisig Starer lived in Shanghai during World War II, having escaped Nazi persecution in Austria. As an industrial chemist he invented alternative formulae for household products difficult to obtain during the war years eg. soap, toothpaste and shoe polish. From time to time he bartered rather than sold the goods and according to his stepson, some of the ivories were acquired in this fashion. This carving would have been brought to Shanghai by Japanese residents of the city, which was occupied by them from 1937 until 1945. The Jewish refugees living in a 'Designated Area' between 1943 and 1945 were able to carry on their business outside this area on acquisition of a special pass issued by the Japanese.
Starer, Eisig (Egon) 1940s


Gift of Mr Eisig Starer, 2007
16 April, 2007

Cite this Object

Chinese carved ivory fisherman 2017, Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, accessed 24 November 2017, <>
{{cite web |url= |title=Chinese carved ivory fisherman |author=Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences |access-date=24 November 2017 |publisher=Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, Australia}}
Know more about this object?
Have a question about this object?