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A Persian export lacquer Chinoiserie box for the Dutch market depicting Leiden cloth-traders
Persia (Iran), Qajar, 19th century


H. 7.6 x W. 28.8 x D. 25.5 cm

This simple, rectangular lacquer box offers a most curious mixture of cultural influences that skilfully masks its likely point of origin. The dichromatic composition in black and gold immediately strikes us as being East-Asian, especially when discovering the distinctly Chinese landscapes and junks – with a single Dutch 17th- century VOC three-master - on the sides of the box. However, careful inspection reveals that all the motifs are oil painted rather than using the East-Asian technique of sprinkling gold powder into unhardened lacquer, ruling out China or Japan. Further studying the beautifully spirit-varnished lid, we can distinguish four unmistakably European traders who are in conclave about a large batch of neatly folded cloth. Are we then looking at a European-made Chinoiserie lacquer box?
Chinoiserie designs did occur in European lacquer workshops in the 19th century
(the Adt factory in Saarbrücken and Forbach is known to have produced such items) influences of Islamic/Persian lacquerware were limited to early Venetian lacquer of the 16th and very early 17th century, which this box certainly isn’t, ruling out European lacquer.

The truth appears to lie in the geographical middle, as the medallions surrounding the central motif portray lions, deer, and oxen that echo the Islamic tradition of decorating in the Middle East and India. Occidentalism is a characteristic feature of Persian lacquer in the 19th century. The Persian lacquer painters even copied Russian lacquers very carefully and on a high artistic level.

The confoundingly accurate mixture of styles and the undeniable quality of the decorations appear to point towards the Persian lacquer workshops of the 19th century. The artisan who produced the piece must have had access to a variety of lacquerware imports from the Far East, for he successfully managed to incorporate several distinct cultural tropes into a well- balanced composition that would have tricked even the most experienced collectors of its age.

It is possibly a unique feature that somebody deliberately made a combination
of three distinct lacquer cultures within a single item. Clearly, the person who commissioned the box was keenly aware of such cultural differences and perhaps even a collector of the lacquers of the world. All motifs are painted in a truly convincing manner, and display none of the ‘clumsiness’ that is often seen when artisans try to copy motifs from foreign cultures. Especially the Chinese ‘Cantonese’ motifs are so bafflingly well done, that they might have even fooled some of the most respected connoisseurs in the field.

The decoration seems to be referring to the (Dutch) cloth-trade and seems to be a free interpretation of an 18th century engraved label on packages of bales of Leiden fabric. The position, but especially the hands of the left figure in the back is exactly the same as on the copper plate, as well as other features, amongst which the cartouche, that recognizable. The copper plate for this engraving is in the collection of Museum de Lakenhal in Leiden (inv. no. 11056). This design can also be found on Chinese export porcelain, possibly ordered by a cloth-trader, dating from circa 1750 of which few pieces are known but a drainer was sold by us to the Lakenhal Museum but is not registered yet.

Perhaps a 19th century Dutch dealer in Eastern textiles or rugs - a collector of lacquerware as well - ordered this box? We can only say with certainty that the collector must have been as eccentric and worldly as the box itself.


In the collection of the Museum für Lackkunst in Munster is a small oval Persian box depicting a monk in a comparable golden ornamental frame, which dates from the late 19th century.

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