Bob and Yachiyo Wittman expand their interest in Asian arts


In a world where everyone else is recessed, depressed and pulling back, Bob and Yachiyo Wittman looked around their gallery on Howard Street and decided they had no choice but to expand.

In the past year, other shop owners on Antique Row have been hit by two blows: the slow economy and the light rail construction, which has discouraged foot traffic on their section of Howard Street.

But serious collectors of Japanese and Chinese prints and porcelains from all over the world -- and people who just love Asian fine arts -- have kept the Wittmans busy. So where there was one store three years ago, there are now three. Two are side-by-side and still called by the original name, Wittman's Oriental Gallery. The new space gives them a gallery devoted to the finer arts of the Floating World period, from early 19th to early 20th centuries.

One more gallery, called Tansu and located just up the street, allows the Wittmans to display their growing collection of Japanese and Korean furniture.

"Running one store I couldn't show everything," Mr. Wittman says. "This way you can take your time and walk through the three stores."

The original gallery is still what Bob Wittman calls "a hodgepodge of 18th, 19th, 20th century all mixed up, a little bit of everything." It has obis, Ikebana baskets, sake sets, tea chests, netsuke, Japanese cast-iron teapots, hibachis, and porcelains including Imari, Kutami and Imari. A basement gallery is devoted to antique and contemporary prints, mainly Japanese wood-block prints.

In contrast, the new space devoted to the Floating World period has more the feel of a museum. "Here we specialize in the finer things of the Edo and Meiji period," Mr. Wittman says. "People can really come in and study the finer things of Japanese culture."

While the emphasis in all three galleries is on the arts of Japan and China and the furniture of Korea, there are items from other Asian countries, including Tibetan tangkas, India Moghul prints and Burmese beaded wall hangings.

"I was trying to make everybody happy as far as collectors are concerned," Mr. Wittman says. "You have so many different types of collectors, some into Imari, some in Kutani, some in furniture, some in prints. And this way I'm kind of accomplishing everything."

Although Yachiyo Wittman is the owner of the galleries, Bob Wittman is involved in most of the day-to-day operation. The Wittmans have been collectors for over 30 years, since the early days of their marriage when Mr. Wittman was stationed in Japan with the Air Force.

As one of the foremost authorities on Japanese and Chinese prints in this area, he is often called on to date and appraise them. Many of his customers have asked him to start classes and he is considering doing that in the future.

"I really have the desire to spread the knowledge of Oriental culture. I enjoy it, talking about an object or teaching people about this or that. And that's the main purpose of being here. I guess I'm one happy fella."

The hours at the galleries are 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays to Saturdays.

Wittman's Oriental Gallery is located at 825 and 827 N. Howard St. Tansu is located at 835 N. Howard St. The telephone number

is 462-5159.

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