A few years ago, we featured a $32,000 pair of bonsai shears here at Open Culture. Recently, their creator Yasuhiro Hiraka was featured in the aforementioned Business Insider video, an 80-minute detailed presentation of ten of the most expensive art and art supplies around the world. It will not be surprising that Japanese things appear in it prominently and more than once. In fact, the video begins in Nara Prefecture, “where for more than 450 years, the Kobaien company has been making some of the most sought-after calligraphy inks in the world” – sum you may know it from the classic Japanese art form sumi-e.
But even the painstakingly produced and most expensively bought paint in the world is useless without brushes. In search of the best examples of these, the next segment of the video takes us to another part of Japan, Hiroshima Prefecture, where an artisan named Yoshiyuki Hata runs a workshop dedicated to the “uncompromising craftsmanship” of calligraphy brushes. One of his finest designs, made from hand-picked goat hair, can fetch the equivalent of $27,000 – but for an equally uncompromising master calligrapher, money seems to be no object.
No matter how dedicated its craftsmen and practitioners are, 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—actually, the ancient way—by extracting the glands of murex snails; sơn mài lacquer painting unique to Vietnam that requires toxic tree resin; ultra-high-quality long-lasting oil paints rich in rare pigments such as cobalt blue; and Kolinsky’s Series 7 watercolor brush, which is made from the tail hairs of Siberian brides, and whose manufacturing process has remained the same since it was first created for Queen Victoria in 1866.
This world tour is also about non-traditional art forms and tools. An Ohio operation turns industrial pollution sludge—”acid mine leachate,” to get technical—into pigments that can make vibrant paints. The stratospheric prices commanded by some works of widely considered “modern art” have long inspired satire, but here we have a closer examination of the connection between the nature of the work and the cost of its acquisition. “What seems simple can be the culmination of a lifetime’s work,” an example of which is Kazmir Malevich. Black Square, “the result of twenty years of simplification and development.” If you know nothing about that painting, it will seem worthless; likewise, if you don’t know anything about those $32,000 bonsai shears, you’ll probably use them to open Amazon boxes.
What Makes Bonsai Art So Expensive?: $1 Million for a Bonsai Tree and $32,000 for Bonsai Shears
How ink is made: The process revealed in a mouth-watering video
View a book of color shades outlined with feathers (circa 1915)
Why Renaissance Masters Added Egg Yolk to Their Paints: New Study Sheds Light
Discover Harvard’s Collection of 2,500 Pigments: Preserving the World’s Rare and Wonderful Colors
Watch artist Shepard Fairey pretend to work at an art supply store
Based in Seoul, Colin Morrshall writes and broadcaststs on cities, language and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on cities, Book Stateless City: A Walk Through 21st Century Los Angeles and the video series City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmorrshall or on Facebook.