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Ten of the Most Expensive Arts & Art Supplies in the Worlds: Japanese Bonsai Scissors & Calligraphy Brushes, Tunisian Dye Made from Snails and More


A few years ago, we fea­tured a $32,000 pair of bon­sai scis­sors here on Open Cul­ture. More recent­ly, their mak­er Yasuhi­ro Hira­ka appeared in the Busi­ness Insid­er video above, a detailed 80-minute intro­duc­tion to ten of the most expen­sive arts and art sup­plies around the world. It will come as no sur­prise that things Japan­ese fig­ure in it promi­nent­ly and more than once. In fact, the video begins in Nara Pre­fec­ture, “where for over 450 years, the com­pa­ny Kobaien, has been mak­ing some of the world’s most sought-after cal­lig­ra­phy ink” — the sumi you may know from the clas­si­cal Japan­ese art form sumi‑e.

But even the most painstak­ing­ly pro­duced and expen­sive­ly acquired ink in the world is no use with­out  brush­es. In search of the finest exam­ples of those, the video’s next seg­ment takes us to anoth­er part of Japan, Hiroshi­ma Pre­fec­ture, where an arti­san named Yoshiyu­ki Hata runs a work­shop ded­i­cat­ed to the “no-com­pro­mise crafts­man­ship” of cal­lig­ra­phy brush­es. One of his top-of-the-line mod­els, made with rig­or­ous­ly hand-select­ed goat hair, could cost the equiv­a­lent of $27,000 — but for an equal­ly uncom­pro­mis­ing mas­ter cal­lig­ra­ph­er, mon­ey seems to be no object.

How­ev­er ded­i­cat­ed its crafts­men and prac­ti­tion­ers, by no means does the Land of the Ris­ing Sun have a monop­oly on expen­sive art sup­plies. This video also includes Tyr­i­an pur­ple dye made in Tunisia the old-fash­ioned way — indeed, the ancient way — by extract­ing the glands of murex snails; the sơn mài lac­quer paint­ing unique to Viet­nam that requires tox­ic tree resin; long-last­ing ultra-high-qual­i­ty oil paints rich with rare pig­ments like cobalt blue; and Kolin­sky’s Series 7 sable water­col­or brush, which is made from hairs from the tails of Siber­ian weasels, and whose process of pro­duc­tion has remained the same since it was first cre­at­ed for Queen Vic­to­ria in 1866.

This world tour also comes around to non-tra­di­tion­al art forms and tools. One oper­a­tion in Ohio turns the muck of indus­tri­al pol­lu­tion — “acid mine drainage,” to get tech­ni­cal — into pig­ments that can make vivid paints. The stratos­pher­ic prices com­mand­ed by cer­tain works of “mod­ern art,” broad­ly con­sid­ered, have long inspired satire, but here we get a clos­er exam­i­na­tion of the con­nec­tion between the nature of the work and the cost of pur­chas­ing it. “What looks sim­ple can be the cul­mi­na­tion of a life­time’s work,” one exam­ple of which is Kazmir Male­vich’s Black Square, “the result of twen­ty years of sim­pli­fi­ca­tion and devel­op­ment.” If you don’t know any­thing about that paint­ing, it will seem to have no val­ue; by the same token, if you don’t know any­thing about those $32,000 bon­sai scis­sors, you’ll prob­a­bly use them to open Ama­zon box­es.

Relat­ed con­tent:

What Makes the Art of Bon­sai So Expen­sive?: $1 Mil­lion for a Bon­sai Tree, and $32,000 for Bon­sai Scis­sors

How Ink is Made: The Process Revealed in a Mouth-Water­ing Video

Behold a Book of Col­or Shades Depict­ed with Feath­ers (Cir­ca 1915)

Why Renais­sance Mas­ters Added Egg Yolk to Their Paints: A New Study Sheds Light

Dis­cov­er Harvard’s Col­lec­tion of 2,500 Pig­ments: Pre­serv­ing the World’s Rare, Won­der­ful Col­ors

Watch Artist Shep­ard Fairey Pre­tend to Work in an Art Sup­ply Store

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.



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