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Business Beat: 01/15/2019

Business Beat for Jan. 15, 2019

Valuable lost vase found at fish restaurant in Berkeley

Japanese vase
This eight-foot-tall Japanese vase sat in the middle of Spenger’s Fresh Fish Grotto in Berkeley for decades.
Kenwoodian Deric Torres is always looking for hidden treasures. As vice president and director of furniture and decorative art for Clars Auction House in Oakland, it's part of Torres' job to sort through family legend and lore, teasing out the history behind inheritance and heirlooms, and occasionally uncovering much more than anticipated.

This was certainly the case when Torres was contacted by representatives of the Spenger family, who up until recently owned and operated the historic Spenger's Fresh Fish Grotto in Berkeley. The 128-year-old restaurant, which closed its doors last year, at one point served upwards of 3,000 pounds of seafood a day, and its dining room was a repository of nautical memorabilia and other art curios, including a towering eight-foot-tall Japanese enamel vase adorned with a dragon riding churning ocean waves beneath a sky filled with plover.

The family members knew little about the vase when they contacted Torres, apart from it being a surprise gift from Frank Spenger, Sr., to his wife, who relegated the gigantic art piece, including its two-foot by four-foot-wide wooden base, to the basement.

Torres' preliminary research revealed the monster vessel might have been exhibited at the 1893 World's Columbian Exhibition in Chicago.

Looking for more information, Torres reached out to those more expert than he about the subject - Judith Snodgrass, associate professor at Western Sydney University in Australia, Dr. Rodger Birt, Ph. D. and Dr. Marvin Nathan, Ph.D., professor emeriti, College of Humanities at San Francisco State University.

What he turned up was that among the ships bells and spyglasses, model ships and trophy swordfish in its wood-paneled dining room, the vase Spenger's had on display all those years was a long thought lost, historically and politically significant art piece.

The vase was indeed one of three monumental Japanese Meiji-period pieces - two cloisonné vases and an incense burner known as a censer - exhibited at the 1893 World's Columbian Exhibition, and then at the 1894 Midwinter Exposition in San Francisco. Cloisonné is an enamel technique that involves soldering or affixing silver or gold wires or thin strips to an object. These wires remain visible in the finished piece, separating the different compartments of the enamel or inlays, which are often of several colors.

The second vase, known as “The Threat of Imperial Russia,” features an eagle with outspread wings, and is part of the Nasser D. Khalili collection of Japanese Decorative Art. The censer, depicting a group of chickens (thought to symbolize Korea), is in the collection of Hirose Atsushi and exhibited by the Shosenkyo Ropeway Cloisonne Art Museum in Kofu, Yamanashi, Japan. The three were reportedly the largest cloisonné pieces ever made at that time. According to the Exposition catalog the pieces were designed especially for the exhibition, took three years to make, and upon their completion, were viewed by the Empress of Japan. Research by Snodgrass revealed that due to their political undertones, at first the triptych was to be prohibited from the inclusion in the Palace of Fine Arts Building. In the end, it was exhibited in the Art Palace, in the west end of the East Court of the ground floor.

Torres said the triptych was significant in showing where Japan was politically at that time.

How the Spenger family ended up with the vase still remains a bit of a mystery. Over two million people visited the 1894 Midwinter Exposition in San Francisco, said Torres, and afterwards many parts of the exhibition were thought to have been sold.

There are condition issues, but the historical relevance far outweighs those issues, said Torres. For one, over 126 years, this vase has remained intact. The vase in the Khalili collection is missing its gold crown.

“I love what I do and I love the research,” said Torres. “I'm happy to know this history has been recovered.”

Torres, who moved to Kenwood with his wife in 2015, loves the thrill of the hunt. Last year, inspired by one of the Kenwood Community Church's 4th of July Auction items, he tracked down an original graphite-drawn Kenwood town parcel map, produced by the Sonoma County Land and Improvement Company in 1887. It hangs proudly in his house on Libby Avenue.

On Feb. 17, Clars Auction Gallery will auction the Spenger vase, with an estimated value between $30,000 to $50,000.

Other Spenger estate items to be auctioned on Feb. 16-17 include a 34.28 carat natural fancy light yellow diamond estimated at $300,000-$500,000, and many nautical collectibles including a ship's wheel, eight feet in diameter, and a ship's bell - complete with a bullet hole - that saw action in the Pacific during WWII.

For many, these items will bring back fond memories of the Berkeley landmark. “This also represents the end of an era. Another change,” said Torres. Torres himself grew up in the East Bay and remembers, as a child, staring at the yellow diamond ring on display and thinking there was no way there could be a real diamond that big, sitting there in a tiny fish restaurant in Berkeley.

Turns out, that wasn't the only treasure hiding in plain sight. Who knew?

Find out more about the auctions at

Murder mystery at Deerfield

Deerfield Ranch Winery is hosting a murder mystery event on Saturday, Jan. 19 from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. Billed as “Death on the Vine,” this will be a subterranean mystery full of wine industry intrigue. The evening will feature food and wine pairings while event goers put their sleuthing skills to the test to solve the 70s-themed mystery.

There will also be a costume contest with a prize for the best groovy 70s costume.

The event is being held in the wine caves at Deerfield Ranch Winery, 10200 Sonoma Hwy., in Kenwood, Ticket prices are $35 for wine club members, and $50 for the general public. Wine and food are included in the ticket price.

For more information, or to reserve a ticket, email Bill Klein at, or go to

Sushi at Seamus

Seamus Wines will be putting on a “Sushi Sunday” on Jan. 27 at their tasting room in Kenwood.

Delicious sushi will be paired with Seamus wines. The wine tasting lounge and sushi bar opens at noon, and reservations are required. This is a private event. Call 573-7277, or email to reserve your spot.

Seamus is located at 8910 Sonoma Hwy. in Kenwood. For more information on Seamus go to

Transcendence intern and apprenticeship opportunities

Transcendence Theatre Company's apprentice/internship program is looking for individuals to gain practical experience in working on the summer musical performances at Jack London State Historic Park.

Internships and apprenticeships are offered in a variety of departments, from the creative to the administrative, and interns and apprentices are encouraged to explore beyond their department to learn more about how the theater functions as a whole. Areas include costumes/props, music, stage management, technical, administrative, marketing, photography, video and more.

Interested? To find out more and to apply, go to The deadline is Feb. 8.

Get tix now for 2019 State of the County

The State of the County Address is an annual breakfast highlighting key opportunities, challenges and initiatives facing Sonoma County. This well-attended event includes a presentation by the Chair of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors and a Keynote Address by a leading economist on the economic prospects for Sonoma County and California in the coming year.

This year's event, entitled “Supporting Resiliency & Hope in Sonoma County's New Framework,” is scheduled for Feb. 1, 7-9 a.m. at the Double Tree Hotel in Rohnert Park.

Seating is limited, so get your tickets now. Go to

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