NAMIKI MAKI-E, BUYERS' GUIDE Back

Some priceless advice from a connoisseur of the Japanese brand, to avoid complications when purchasing these lacquer icons.

Pens decorated using the maki-e technique are known and admired by all, and for collectors they are a true cult object to be guarded jealously. The idea of applying the maki-e technique to fountain pens came to Ryosuke Namiki, who began using it in the 1920s. Other Japanese producers of fountain pens, at least the leaders like Platinum and Sailor, began making lacquered pens from 1932–36, but not on a regular basis and often proposing work that was unsigned, so today they are not appreciated as they deserve to be. So when referring to vintage maki-e pens, those produced before World War II, we mean Namikis or Dunhill-Namikis, the latter being the brand carried by items distributed in the Western world.
These fountain pens soared to high – even extremely high – prices, a fact that led unscrupulous artists to produce forgeries of the originals to sell as authentic. Reproductions and originals have little in common as they are sometimes simply airbrushed. It is therefore very important to have a thorough knowledge of these writing instruments, paying attention to the few characteristics that distinguish them and that can help the collector to make the right Namiki or Dunhill-Namiki purchase.
 
Two names, one company
Let’s clear away any doubts, first of all, about Namiki and Pilot. They are not different companies, but two brands of the same business. Namiki is the brand used to market the high-end maki-e pens; Pilot is used for the  rest of production.
Ryosuke Namiki (1880–1954) founded the Namiki Manufacturing Co. in 1918. He had worked at the Japanese Naval Academy as the chief engineer in charge of merchant ships, then as a university professor, patenting a variation of the fountain pen filler system and a gold-iridium alloy to be used on nibs. Namiki’s first logo could not fail to be the drawing of a lifebelt containing the initial “N,” which later became a “P” when the company changed its name to Pilot Pen Co., in 1938. This feature allows us to date the oldest Namikis, although at the end of the 1970s Pilot retrieved the original Namiki name for the production of maki-e fountain pens. 
 
The Dunhill venture
In the 1920s, the London company Alfred Dunhill Ltd., specializing in smoking accessories and luxury items, was already famous around the world, also thanks to the opening of flagship stores in the main European capitals. Clement Court, managing director of the Paris branch, was an avid collector of Oriental art. In 1927 he reached a business agreement with Setsuij Wada, Namiki’s European agent, for the distribution and sale of maki-e fountain pens. Then, in 1929, he arranged the contract granting Dunhill exclusive sales rights for the Namiki maki-e fountain pens outside Japan. 
In the agreements between the companies, the pens were divided into five classes, from A to D, with A being the top class characterized by the use of more gold dust and more complex  patterns. The class-A fountain pens almost always bear the signature of the artist, while class D rarely does. Moreover, there are some lovely unsigned pieces and although they are classified as D, they are actually more impressive than those given a higher ranking because they have more gold dust. 
The agreement between Dunhill and Namiki continued for about a decade, until the start of World War II. How many Namiki fountain pens were produced in those years and how many remain in circulation today, still in good condition? In his book Dunhill-Namiki and Lacquer Pens, Tomihiro Murakami makes a precise estimate: Dunhill-Namiki lacquered or maki-e decoration fountain pens were produced for about seven years. At the time Namiki had about 30 makie-shi, each of whom could make about ten pens per month. If this level of production had lasted ten years no more than 40,000 pens would have been made. There are no more than 2,000 surviving fountain pens that have collector value at this time. A fact that proves how rare Dunhill-Namiki maki-e pieces are.
 
Keep an eye on the nib and on the filler
In 1937 the Japanese government banned the commercial use of gold and invited the population to give everything they owned to the homeland, contributing to the war effort. Many of the pens produced before 1937 were thus deprived of their gold nib, which was replaced by a substitute in the 1950s. 
How we can know if the nib is original or a substitute? The Industrial Japanese Standard (IJS) trademark designation, commonly adopted since 1954 to certify that the product complied with specific requisites, can be of assistance. The presence of this mark (Pilot was one of the first industries to adopt the standard) certifies that the nib was manufactured after 1954. Also, most of the nibs made by Namiki before and by Pilot now, are inscribed with the date of production, usually found at the point where the nib fits into the section or even inside. It is a three- or four-digit number, sometimes preceded by a letter. For example, the number 1132 indicates a replacement made in November 1932, while 0607 means it was made in June 2007.
The system is one of the first things to check when you’re interested in buying a Dunhill-Namiki vintage fountain pen: it is not the most important part of the pen, but it is the easiest to verify. The fillers produced by Namiki in the 1920s–30s were all the same: a completely smooth exterior (similar to those made by Waterman, for example) but without lateral incisions. If you find a ribbed or Christmas tree filler, or one that is not smooth, then it’s not an original. 
 
The artist’s signature
There is a lot of confusion about the signatures that accompany maki-e designs. Further confusion arises from their absence, creating an aura of mystery around these works. Which artist might have made this pen and forgotten to sign it? 
In order to increase the value of unsigned maki-e fountain pens, imagination gets to work, looking for similarities with other designs by famous masters, so as to track down a possible origin.
So there are a number of indications on the use of signatures that are worth bearing in mind when buying a Namiki (not the same as for a Sailor or a Platinum).
Typically, a full signature that accompanies important work consists of the name of the guild to which the artist belonged, followed by the artist’s signature (“Mei”) to the left (Japanese writing moves vertically from right to left), followed by the personal red emblem (“Kao,” a monogram or a special design that a Japanese author will decide to use as a signature), embossed with a stamp (“Hanko”). 
Today there are many independent artists, but in the past the makie-shi were part of a guild.  Here, artists or associates worked under the guidance of the master, making the designs, while the artisans, namely the apprentices, worked only on preparation of the surface of the object to be decorated. The finest craftsmen also manufactured complete decorations, but they had no power of signature: they could sign their works only when the master promoted them from artisan to full guild member. The members were divided into seniors and juniors, and the latter could sign their works using only the name of the guild, while the former could use their name (“Mei”), which was added next to that of the guild, or their mark (“Kao”), next to the name.
 
 
*The article is an excerpt from a larger work made available by the author. For more information, pedewall@yahoo.it