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A splendid Japanese export lacquer box shaped like a folded letter, fitted with Louis XIV ormolu mounts

Edo period, second half of the 17th century

H. 9.5 x W. 17.5 x D. 11.2 cm (box)

H. 1.3 x W. 17.1 x D. 10 cm (tray)

Worth mentioning is the fact that the work remains in excellent condition, with even the tin and silver inlays of flower petals showing no signs of oxidation. Also notable is the nashiji interior of the box, which comes complete with a removable tray that carries a hira-maki-e design of chrysanthemums that likewise incorporates high-relief appliqués in solid silver and 13-carat gold.

The angled design of this splendid Japanese lacquer box is modelled after a musubi- bumi, a rolled-up and folded letter that typically carries written contents expressing romantic interest. On top of the partially nashiji-sprinkled lid, we see a blossoming camellia in bold taka-maki-e that is further enriched by carved mother-of-pearl and - most uncommon - green lacquer. The fact that two distinct colours of the flower have merged into a single bonsai further emphasizes the box's profoundly romantic and feminine nature. Similarly proportioned ‘folded letter’ boxes can be found in the collections of the National Museum of Denmark (EAc.65, 68, 93) and the Musée National des Châteux de Versailles et de Trianon (Kopplin, p. 160). Items from the former location originate from the 17th-century collection of Frederik III. In contrast, the latter box can be confidently linked to the collection of Marie Antoinette by appearing in two royal inventories dating from the late 18th century.

The lower section of the box reveals a more generic landscape scene in maki-e that appears to bear a little iconographic relationship with the lid. Judging from the stylistic characteristics of the trees, houses, and foliage, it becomes evident that the piece belongs to a group of items found in the collections of Versailles (Kopplin, p. 92) and Burghley House (JWA09002, 09045, 09064). It therefore undoubtedly originated from the same Kyoto-based workshop that produced order-made lacquer boxes of the highest quality for the European royals. As early as 1642, we find orders within the Dutch East India Company archives asking for small but ‘scarce and costly’ lacquerware boxes that could be transported to Europe inside larger chests and cabinets (Canepa, p. 377). Many of these ended up in France, the country with some of the most avid lacquer collectors of the era. This particular work has been fitted with 18th-century ormolu mounts virtually identical to those seen in lacquer from the Adolphe Thiers collection of the Musée du Louvre (TH405), strengthening the suspicion that it belonged to a French collector and possibly even Marie Antoinette herself.


Boyer, Martha. Japanese Export Lacquer from the seventeenth century in the National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen 1959. (pl, XXXVII; p. 25)
Canepa, Teresa. Silk, Porcelain and Lacquer: China and Japan and their trade with Western Europe and the New World 1500-1644. Paul Holberton Publishing, 2016.
Kopplin, Monika. Japanische Lacke: die Sammlung der Köningin Marie-Antoinette. Münster, 2001.
Kyoto National Museum (KNM). Export lacquer: Reflection of the West in Black and Gold Maki-e. Kyoto National Museum, 2008. (p. 113, 115, 186, 188, 192-194)
Lacambre, Geneviève. L’Or de Japon, laques anciens des collections publiques françaises. IAC Edictions, 2010. Catalogue no. 26.

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