Art People

The Empire of Bamboo for Home

Empire of Bamboo

Collectors who are just starting out spend time chasing down their objects of desire. Once they’ve made it, they can sit back and wait for the phone to ring.

“We’re at the point now, where, if something brilliant comes up, somebody calls us,” said Diane Abbey, who, with her husband, Arthur, is among the world’s top collectors of Japanese bamboo baskets. The couple — who split their time between the Upper East Side and the Hamptons when not traveling the world — own around 300 in total.

Some of them were seen in the 2017-18 exhibition “Japanese Bamboo Art: The Abbey Collection” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A version of the show opens at Japan’s Oita Prefectural Art Museum in May. The Abbeys are donating much of the show’s contents to the Met, which they can see from the window of their apartment; they could send the baskets down via a zip line if such methods weren’t frowned upon.

Baskets in the living room: top shelf, from left, “Diamond Pattern Flower Basket” (2003), Hayakawa Shokosai V; “Four Waterfalls” (circa 1927-34), Iizuka Rokansai; middle shelf, “Celestial” (2004), Tanioka Shigeo; bottom, from left, “Chinese Jade,” Oki Toshie and “Okame” (1956), Isamu Noguchi.CreditThe Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Winnie Au for The New York Times
“Moonlight Landscape,” by Man Ray, with the standing mobile “Sandy’s Butterfly” (1964) by Alexander Calder.CreditCalder Foundation, New York/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Man Ray 2015 Trust/Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY/ADAGP, Paris; Winnie Au for The New York Times

The couple, who are mostly retired (he from law, she from teaching) discovered the artistry in baskets 25 years ago, visiting a gallery in Santa Fe, N.M. “We picked them out because we loved them, and they just started to be a collection,” Mr. Abbey said, adding that the oldest piece they own was made about 150 years ago.

The Japanese baskets, woven from thin strips of bamboo, come in a huge variety of colors, shapes and sizes. The collection ranges from the late-19th-century, chapeau-shaped “Bowler Hat” by Hayakawa Shokosai I, an old master of the trade, to the more recognizably basketlike “Muso” (2012), by Fujinuma Noboru. Famed makers like Iizuka Rokansai and Tanabe Chikuunsai IV are also represented. This painstaking craft is often handed down in families, so the Abbeys have pieces by Tanabe Chikuunsai III, II and I, too.

The Abbeys have also acquired a eye-popping trove of modern paintings and sculptures by the likes of Alexander Calder, Willem de Kooning, Joan Mitchell and Joseph Cornell, which they have installed liberally in their apartment, mixing it with the baskets. The couple, who were honored during Asia Week New York in March for advancing Asian art, spoke recently about why they love baskets. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

This is such a wonderfully niche field. What appeals?

DIANE ABBEY They’re all made by hand, which is truly amazing.

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