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The Hare with the Amber Eyes: A Family's Century of Art and Loss

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The Ephrussis were a grand banking family, as rich and respected as the Rothschilds, who 'burned like a comet' in nineteenth-century Paris and Vienna society. Yet by the end of WWII, almost the only thing remaining of their vast empire was a collection of 264 wood and ivory carvings, none of them larger than a matchbox. The renowned ceramicist Edmund de Waal became the fifth generation to inherit this small and exquisite collection of netsuke. Entranced by their beauty and mystery, he determined to trace the story of his family through the story of the collection. The netsuke - drunken monks, almost-ripe plums, snarling tigers - were gathered by Charles Ephrussi at the height of the Parisian rage for all things Japanese. He had shunned the place set aside for him in the family business to make a study of art, and of beautiful living. An early supporter of the Impressionists, he appears, oddly formal in a top hat, in Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party. Marcel Proust studied Charles closely enought to use him as a model for the aesthete and lover Swann in Remembrance of Things Past. The Anschluss changed the world of the Ephrussi beyond recognition. Hitler's theorist on the 'Jewish question' appropriated their palace on the Ringstrasse. Books and paintings disappeared, stolen or confiscated. But, the netsuke werte smuggled away by a loyal maid, Anna, and hidden in her straw mattress. Years after the war, she would find a way to return them to the family. Edmund de Waal unfolds a highly original meditation on art, history and family - as elegant and precise as the netsuke themselves. B&W photographs. 354p.

Editorial Reviews

A nimble history of one of the richest European families at the turn of the century.De Waal, a notable London potter, is a descendent of the wealthy Ephrussi family. He seized on an inherited collection of Japanese netsuke—small decorative figures made out of wood or ivory—and traced its ownership down the family line, from patriarch Charles Ephrussi, originally from Odessa, to Great-Uncle Iggie, of Tokyo, who left the 264 elegant figures to the author upon his death in 1993. The family's fabulous wealth derived from the grain-trading business, operating between Paris and Vienna. Charles, who assembled the collection, was a dandyish art collector who settled in Paris at the age of 21, wrote art criticism and a book on Dürer and patronized the early Impressionists. He was quite possibly the real-life character on whom Proust modeled his Charles Swann. Subsequently, the netsuke was given to Charles's cousin Viktor on the occasion of his wedding in 1899—just at the height of the Dreyfus Affair, when French anti-Semitism burst forth in full force—and the collection passed to Vienna, where the family resided at the surpassingly beautiful Ephrussi Palais on the Ringstrasse. Anti-Jewish feeling pervaded all facets of their lives, and two world wars wreaked havoc on the Ephrussi fortune. Eventually the netsuke was saved from the rapacious hands of the Nazis by a servant who stuffed it in her mattress. De Waal keeps a pleasantly ironic tone throughout this remarkable journey and nicely handles the clutter of objects and relatives.The roster of characters is daunting at first, but this narrative proves a marvelously absorbing synthesis of art history, detective story and memoir.Agent: Felicity Bryan/Felicity Bryan Agency Copyright Kirkus 2010 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.

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