What began in Japan in the eighth century to break up the open spaces in Japanese houses has continued and is one of today’s most popular art forms. The painted Japanese folding screen with gold or silver foil as its canvas has translated a wide variety of nature and genre scenes with inks and mineral pigments.
Americans have had an ongoing love affair with Japanese screens since they first traveled there after Japan opened to the West in 1868. Interest grew when American soldiers brought home examples after World War II. Today, many of the finest examples, centuries-old, are in museums and private collections and available through specialty dealers.
Historically, painted folding screens originated in China and depicted scholars and landscapes in black and white. The Japanese adapted these techniques, adding bright colors and gold leaf. What comes to market these days can date from the 16th century to contemporary examples.
The screens are referred to in Japanese as “byobu,” protection from the wind. Small pillow screens were first made to protect sleeping, working-class people from drafts.
Early subjects were tigers and dragons. However, as the economy developed, merchants sought elaborate screens for wealthy patrons. Subjects took on a wide range of subjects and purpose. Women gave birth between screens covered with birds and animals thought to bring good fortune, happiness and a long life. Everyday subjects such as pets and clothing were popular.
Age and signatures aren’t the most important thing when evaluating a screen. Beauty and subjects can dictate the price. Prices for large, early, signed examples have sold for over a million dollars. Many sell in the high thousands these days. However, small, vintage table screens can still be found for a few thousand dollars.
Condition is all important for these fragile paper works of art. Too much gilding and repainted faces or figures lessen values. Painted areas should feel a bit rough from the grit used in the original mineral colors.
Museum gift shops and many catalogues sell printed reproductions for several hundred dollars. Art galleries offer quality new screens that can cost thousands of dollars.