East meets West in Michael Ayervais’ Japanese Ningyô collection

Photographs of Michael Ayervais and dolls from his ningyô collection. Photographs by John Rizzo.


Michael Ayervais is a hairstylist (owner of Ayervais Salon in Manhattan), a photographer, an art dealer (owner of Gallery 228, also in Manhattan) and something more — a collector with a most unusual passion.

Ayervais’ Manhattan apartment is home to hundreds of examples of Ningyô, traditional Japanese dolls crafted from the 17th to 19th centuries. The Ningyô (meaning “human shape”) range from everyday people to warriors, royalty and mythical figures. They were created as spiritual guides, family memorials, formal gifts and mementos of community celebrations, including the annual “Hinamatsuri,” Girls’ Day, and “Tango no Sekk,” Boys’ Day.

But ironically, they were never played with.

Ayervais’ collection has been featured in exhibits at The Japan Society, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Asia Art Fair and The Las Vegas Art Museum, and has served as the focal point of many texts. The native New Yorker doesn’t just collect the dolls, though. He restores and sells them, too.

“The Japanese didn’t take them as art, they took them as part of their lives,” he says. “Every piece has its own history and its own mythology.”

His broad collection features everything from the earliest forms of the dolls — stick-like figures without heads, wearing hand-sewn garments — to dolls that could be mistaken for young children.

“The reason they look alive is because they’re all made of live materials,” Ayervais says. “The surfaces are oyster shell lacquer, silk, the inside of wood, straw and paper.”

In addition to the Ningyô’s many purposes, there are also different forms. Ayervais holds one of the Ichimatsu, which appear no different than toddlers. They were created for the Japanese geisha, who were unable to have children and carried Ningyô as alternatives.

Other Ningyô include the Hina, the classic Ningyô with a pyramid-like body, wearing layered gowns that were stuffed with straw or wood; the Musa, both male and female warriors; the Gosho, overweight male babies exchanged as gifts within the royal family; and the Iki-ningyô, life-size dolls used for theatrical purposes.

All of these Ningyô — and more — can be found in Ayervais’ apartment.

“It’s been a very interesting journey,” Ayervais says. “Between the pieces and the people I meet and just the story of the Ningyô. The Ningyô are really the center soul of Japan. It’s what every other art form kind of circles around, and yet, it hasn’t been discovered the way it should be.”

Ayervais discovered his passion more than 20 years ago, after attending an antiques exhibit at the Park Avenue Armory and spotting a Hina emperor and empress set with spellbinding faces. Ayervais left the exhibit empty-handed with plans to return the following day. To his dismay, the pair had been purchased, a disappointment that only intensified his interest and resolve to become a collector.

Ayervais’ collection has since earned him a following in the art world, along with the opportunity to travel and meet fellow collectors, and, of course, add to his growing collection.

When asked how his pieces are selected, he admits the mesmerizing faces and mysterious expressions still draw him in.

Michael Ayervais sells Japanese art at Gallery 228, 40 W. 25 St. in Manhattan. For more, visit japaneseartsite.com.

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