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.
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.