American-born Robert Yellin came to Japan to indulge his fascination with ceramics, the country’s oldest art form. Thirty years later, he’s a respected collector, dealer, and author, having founded the Robert Yellin Yakimono Gallery (39 Ginkakujimae-cho, Sakyo-ku; japanesepottery.com), where he advises collectors, curators, and institutions, including the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Where do Japanese ceramics stand in the global art market? They are the most undervalued art form—but as museums have taken interest, perceptions have begun to change. I have in my gallery Yasuhisa Kohyama’s Slice of Earth; it was on the cover of the exhibition catalog for a contemporary ceramics show at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts in 2005. It’s world-class and valued at $10,000!
How do you advise first-time collectors? I get a sense of their taste and then introduce Japanese styles and trends, giving an overview of historical aspects and contemporary interpretations. From there I show them who is recognized, whose work is in museum collections. A collection of 12 high-quality pieces could start at $30,000.
Who are two to collect now? Shinya Tanoue and Takahiko Kato. I carry work from each. Tanoue is a burgeoning presence in the contemporary Japanese ceramic scene. He’s young: 40. He came to the art form without the pressures and expectations of a traditional lineage. He joined a ceramics club in college, where he was studying theology, and later refined his skills at the Kyoto Saga Art College. The circle of life is his theme, and he depicts it through shells—seashells, eggshells. His pieces are visually striking in their construction and for their repeated use of an intense blue, a reference to the ocean, where life on earth began. Kato was born into the Shigaraki lineage—one of the six ancient kilns—in 1952, though he was mentored by Osamu Suzuki, a leader of the mid-20th-century avant-garde ceramist group Sodeisha. His vessels emphasize sculpture over function, with surfaces marked by the rustic textures of natural ash glazes built up over multiday firings in a wood-burning anagama kiln.
It’s so difficult to believe a teacup can cost more than a large jar. Price doesn’t always correlate to the size or complexity of a piece. It’s hard to explain, but tea ware is the epitome of ceramic art in Japan. They say it’s holding the spirit of the potter; you can’t put a price on that.