Newly Discovered Monumental Japanese Cloisonne Vase from the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair Comes to Auction

07 Jan

Spenger's restaurant in Berkeley, CA

Berkeley, California: Spenger’s restaurant, dining room. Photo copyright Lee Foster. Photo# california123390

Coming to Auction Sunday, February 17th

Oakland, CA – For over 100 years, a monumental 8-foot Japanese cloisonné vase reigned as the centerpiece in the main dining room of Spenger’s Fresh Fish Grotto in Berkeley (CA), one of the San Francisco Bay Area’s oldest and most beloved restaurants. And, for over 100 years, no one was aware that this vase was one of Japan’s most spectacular works of art created for the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. On February 17th, 2019, Clars Auction Gallery of Oakland, CA, is very honored to announce that they will be presenting this historic vase to the world market on behalf of the Spenger Family.

Japanese TriptychThis magnificent vase was created as part of a triptych composed of two vases that each stood over eight feet high centered by a censer, mounted on beautifully carved bases made of keyaki wood to celebrate Japan’s entry into the modern era. Together, this triptych was the largest example of cloisonné enamel made through that date. The design of the vases was conceived by Shin Shinwoda, the Special Counselor for Arts of the Imperial Commission to the Exposition. Their manufacture was undertaken by Shirozayemon Suzuki, of Yokohama, with the co-operation of Seizayemon Tsunekawa of Nagoya. The original design was painted by Kanpo Araki of Tokyo, and the black ink sketch on the copper body was made by Kiosai Oda of Nagoya. The men directly in charge of making the vases were Gisaburo Tsukamoto and Kihio ye Hayashi, of Toshim.

It took this team of artists and manufacturers over four years to complete this project. Upon completion, it was viewed and approved personally by Japanese Emperor Mutsuhito (posthumous name: Emperor Meiji).

The extravagant designs on the vases were inspired by Japan’s changing vision of itself in the world, reflecting the country’s evolution into a more modern and global status, now referred to as Meiji Modernity.

Today, the censer resides in the collection of Hirose Atsushi at the Tokyo National Museum. The “other” vase resides in the Khalili Collection at Oxford and from 1895 up until now, the second vase was considered “missing.” It had, however, been quietly residing in the main dining room at Spenger’s Fresh Fish Grotto in Berkeley, CA.

The story of the missing vase begins to unfold in 1892 when Michael H. de Young of San Francisco, a businessman and journalist who founded the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper and the de Young Museum, was appointed as a national commissioner to the 1893 Columbian Exposition by President Benjamin Harrison. Through this position, de Young saw the opportunity to stimulate California’s economy by proposing an 1894 California Midwinter Fair, which was held the following winter in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, CA.

Clars.SpengerCloissoneVaseFrontClars.SpengerCloisonneVaseBackFollowing the Chicago World’s Fair, de Young brought one of the Japanese cloisonné vases to San Francisco for exhibition at the Midwinter Fair. It was at this point, following the fair, that Frank Spenger, avid collector and owner of Spenger’s Restaurant in Berkeley, bought this one vase from Michael de Young and placed it inside the main dining room where it has remained until October 2018.

The neck of this spectacular vase is decorated in a design of stars, stripes and maple leaves interwoven with chrysanthemum flowers. The body is adorned with a dragon among clouds on the front and a design of plover circling over waves on the back. The vase still stands mounted on its magnificently carved keyaki wood base. The presale estimate on this historic piece is $30,000 – $50,000.

Deric Torres, Vice President of Decorative Arts and Furnishings for Clars Auction Gallery, is handling this estate for the Spenger family. He recalls dining in the restaurant on numerous occasions over several years and was always struck by the “monumental vase,” in the dining room. “It is so exciting to now be able to uncover the amazing history of this vase and to discover its significance in both history and art.”

Torres would also like to extend his sincere gratitude to the following experts who were instrumental in his extensive research on the history of this vase and the triptych:  Judith Snodgrass, Associate Professor, Western Sydney University, Australia; Dr. Rodger Birt, Professor Emeritus, College of Humanities, San Francisco State University; Dr. Marvin Nathan, Professor Emeritus, College of Humanities, San Francisco State University.

The History of Spenger’s Fresh Fish Grotto

Spenger’s was founded by Johann Spenger who emigrated to California from Bavaria in 1860 and worked as a hook and line fisherman on Oakland’s Lake Merritt. Beginning as just a clam stand in the 1890s, Johann’s son Frank expanded the “stand” to a full restaurant in the 1930s. Since then, celebrities and locals alike packed the restaurant daily. By the 1950s, the restaurant was serving 3,500 pounds of fish each day, more than any restaurant west of the Mississippi. By the 1980s, it was serving 3,000 meals each day, staffed by 240 employees and had grown to be the fourth busiest restaurant in the country.

View the Spenger Maritime Collection coming to auction January 20th

For More About the “Found” Vase:

Chicago Tribune: A rare vase from the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair was thought to be lost. Turns out it was at a California seafood restaurant.

The World’s Fair Chicago 1893: Japanese Vase from 1893 World’s Fair Was Hiding in Plain Sight

Historic Spenger Collection Comes to Auction at Clars in January and February 2019

The February 17th  sale of the Japanese cloisonné vase from the Spenger Collection will be held in conjunction with Clars’ Fine Art, Decorative Art, Furniture, Jewelry, and Asian Art Auction.

In addition to the vase, there will be a collection of nautical pieces and the locally famous Spenger Diamond. An unusually large, 34.28 cts., old mine-cut diamond ring.

The sale will begin promptly at 9:30 am on Sunday. Previews for this sale will be held Friday, February 15th  from 1 pm to 6 pm, Saturday and Sunday beginning at 9:00 am and by appointment the week prior. For more information, please visit or email: [email protected]

Bidding for Clars’ auctions is available in person, by phone, absentee and live online at

Clars Auction Gallery is located at 5644 Telegraph Avenue, Oakland, CA 94609.

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Clars Auction Gallery is based in Oakland (CA) and is the largest full-service auction gallery in the Western United States. Clars Auction Gallery has been the chosen auction gallery of a number of institutions and distinguished private collectors across the country including the Richard Mellon Scaife Estate, the Thomas J. Perkins Estate and The Metropolitan Museum of Art (NYC).

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4 Responses to “Newly Discovered Monumental Japanese Cloisonne Vase from the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair Comes to Auction”

  1. Juergen January 8, 2019 at 5:46 pm #

    Hi, just curious, lovely vase!

    If the restaurant was built in the 1930s how can the vase have been there fior over 100 years?

    • Deric Torres January 9, 2019 at 9:43 am #

      Hi Juergen,

      The restaurant has been in continuous business for 128 years.

  2. Sharon K King January 9, 2019 at 10:01 am #

    Amazing! I love cloisonne and have seen the photos of this vases in many books and have wondered where they were. I hope this vase is purchased by a museum so all can see it. Cloisonne should be given more respect for its beauty, its place in history and its difficult techniques.
    Stupidly, I have been to Spenger’s several times in my life (before I started collecting cloisonne) and did not notice it. I was focused on the food and company.

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