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A carved cinnabar lacquer seal chest, Jiajing mark and period. Estimate 80,000120,000 GBP. Photo: Sotheby’s

of rectangular section comprising five similarly carved panels: a removable front, three sides and a hinged cover, each depicting a foliate-shaped medallion enclosing a crane and a phoenix amidst wispy clouds centered on stylized shou character, the medallions set on a ground of flowering and fruiting branches of peach, prunus, lotus and peony, the cover with a rim carved with a band of prunus, pine and bamboo, the interior with six fitted drawers, arranged in three tiers, each fitted with lotus-form gilt copper escutcheons and pulls, the interior of the chest, drawers and flat recessed base lacquered brownish-black, the base incised with a gilt six-character reign mark  Quantité: 8 – 33cm., 13in.

PROVENANCE; Collection of J.T. Tai.
Sotheby’s New York, 22nd March 2011, lot 228.

Notes: Striking for the intricately carved decoration that extends over the entire broad surface, this box is notable for the perfectly composed and executed auspicious design. The Jiajing Emperor was obsessed with the magical practices performed by Daoist adepts in their quest for attaining fertility and immortality, thus imbuing all forms of art with Daoist themes. Amongst the various motifs found on this chest that allude to immortality are the lingzhi fungus, the shou character born from a ruyi-shaped cloud, the Three Friends of Winter and the double peach. The material itself was believed to have life-prolonging qualities, with lacquer vessels utilised for consuming food as early as the Song dynasty (960-1279).

A closely related Jiajing chest, similarly carved with confronting phoenix and crane, from the collection of Jean-Pierre Dubosc, was included in the exhibition Chinese Lacquer, Eskenazi, London, 1992, cat. no. 21. Chests of this form are also known carved on the central cartouche with various auspicious motifs; see one decorated with a group of cranes, in the Lee family collection, included in the exhibition Dragon and Phoenix. Chinese Lacquer Ware, The Museum of East Asian Art, Cologne, 1990, cat. no. 54, sold at Christie’s Hong Kong, 28th November 2012, lot 2102; another, sold at Christie’s London, 1stDecember 1997, lot 260; one decorated with dragons and cranes, in the Palace Museum, Beijing, illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Lacquer wares of the Yuan and Ming Dynasties, Shanghai, 2006, pl. 189, together with a chest carved with a twisting pine forming a shou character and a dragon, pl. 112; and another in the collection of Fritz Low-Beer, exhibited in Im Zeichen des Drachen, Museum fur Lackkunst, Munchen, 2006, cat. no. 71. Compare also rectangular lacquer chests with a detachable front panel, similarly carved on each side with auspicious motifs enclosed in a lobed cartouche; such as one in the Palace Museum, Beijing, included in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum, op. cit., pl. 136; and a pair, from the H.R.H. Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester, H.R.H. Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester and the Lee family collections, sold at Christie’s London, 8th June 1987, lot 141, and again at Christie’s Hong Kong, 1st December 2009, lot 1829.

Rectangular lacquer chests have a long history in China, and in the Ming dynasty were used to hold seals on scholar’s desks or cosmetics and other objects for personal adornment on ladies’ dressing tables. A rectangular chest modelled with a removable and slightly domed cover, was recovered from the Tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng, who lived circa AD 433, in Suixian, Leigudun, Hubei province. Chests of this form were also discovered in the Han dynasty (206 BC- AD 220) tomb of Lady Dai at Mawangdui, Hunan province, where they were used to hold clothes, food and cosmetics (see Sarah Handler, Austere Luminosity of Chinese Classical Furniture, Berkley, 2001, pp 241-242). Due to the laborious and time-consuming process of creating carved lacquer, large and exquisite pieces such as the present, were exclusively produced for the court.

Sotheby’s. Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art, Londres | 05 nov. 2014, 10:00 AM