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Book review – The Hare with Amber Eyes


June 7, 2012   ·   3 Comments

One of the netsuke from Edmund d Waal's collection, from

When a well-known curator and artist inherits a collection of 150 netsuke–button-sized Japanese carvings in ivory or wood–he starts to think about how it came into his hands. Netsuke are button-sized Japanese carvings in ivory or wood that according to Wikipedia have a functional use–to hold up purses of men in kimonos, which otherwise have no pockets.

The inquiry becomes a quirky family history about power, wealth, inheritance and obsession. The Hare with Amber Eyes is by Edmund de Waal, former curator of ceramics at the Victoria & Albert Museum and a ceramics installation artist in his own right.


One of the netsuke from Edmund d Waal's collection, from

He traces a family fortune back to a Jewish grain merchant in Odessa who parlays his success into international banking. The story focuses first on Charles Ephrussi, whose family branch was dispatched to Paris to help run the family bank there. Charles becomes a well-known aesthete, a connoisseur and art critic in the 1900s, who purchases the netsuke for his personal collection.

(That collection includes Monets, Manets, Degas and more. Charles is pictured in Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party–the gentleman in the top-hat, facing away. )

Edmund de Waal, photo from, with one of his installations behind him

Charles eventually gives away his netsuke collection, some of which you can see on de Waal’s web site. The collection moves to Vienna, gifted to an Ephrussi nephew and wife upon their marriage.

In the course of the story, we learn how the wealthy Jewish families of Paris lived, and then how the wealthy Jews of Vienna lived, until under the Nazis the Viennese Ephrussis lose their livelihoods, their fortunes and their homeland. The netsuke however remain within the family, in the care of de Waal’s great uncle, who builds a life for himself in post-World War II Japan.

The integration of social and personal history make this book so much more than a mere family history. It is a tale of migrations and turmoil, told with astonishing detail and intelligence, largely through the language of possessions and objects. The tie-in of the author’s own interests in Japan and its art and ceramics adds another layer of interest to the storytelling.

I was riveted and I was charmed.

Info about a new, illustrated version (U.K.), The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance, is on de Waal’s website.

I read the original version, The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family’s Century of Art and Loss, which includes some wonderful photographs of the family.

Hardcover: 368 pages
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (August 31, 2010)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0374105979
ISBN-13: 978-0374105976

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3 Responses to “Book review – The Hare with Amber Eyes”

  1. Andrea Kirsh says:

    I was given this book this winter and loved it. De Waal’s writing is as impressive as the story he tells, and would be so even were it his usual metier. It is much more remarkable coming from a potter. He really invents a form, as the book is a meditation on the place of things as much as a family and personal history. He is a remarkable man, and this book will certainly appeal to anyone who deals with works of art in almost any capacity.

  2. libby says:

    Thanks for those additional thoughts. It was indeed a remarkable book. The appeal is really to anyone who likes a good yarn! The personal in this book becomes a universal symbolic search for understanding the past’s influence on the present.

  3. C Barnard says:

    Shockingly enough, I only heard about this book on the radio yesterday. It was one of the books in the art-themed line-up on “The Book Report”. Sounds like an incredibly interesting read, and one I’ll definitely be getting my hands on. If you’re interested in hearing about some of the other books featured, you can still catch the show on some stations today, or the archived show will appear later in the week on their website (bookreportradio(dot)com-where you’ll also find the schedule).
    Thank you for the extra input and the recommendation!

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