Tonkin & Sawasa wares
"Miracles in black and gold"

Sawasa met Europeanen.jpg

Tonkin or Sawasa ware is a particular group of black lacquered and gilt artefacts, produced initially in Japan/Nagasaki, China and Indochina. These wares are characterized by their European shapes and Asian/Chinese decorative motives. From the late 17th till the late 18th century, the Dutch VOC, but more so private merchants, used the Dutch trade base, Deshima in Nagasaki, to order precious Sawasa ware for the rich Eurasian elite in the VOC headquarters in Batavia but also to satisfy the taste for exotic rarities in Europe.


With the collapse of the VOC, the occupation of the Netherlands by the French armies and of the Dutch East Indies by the English at the end of the 18th century, the production of Sawasa ware came to a sudden end.

A ruyi-shaped Shakudo-style erotic tobacco or snuff box, relief-decorated with silvered applied figures

Possibly Jakarta (Batavia), first half 18th century

H. 2.2 x L. 12.1 x W. 8 cm

This box is very much in the Dutch taste, for the illustration is after a print with a legend reading “L’oiseau sans cage. Prenez, belle, mon oiseau. C’est le plus doux présent que je puisse vous faire. Pour les autres oiseaux, la cage d’ordinaire est une espèce de tombeau. Mais le mien semble prendre une nouvelle vie, Lorsqu’il sera dans la cage de mon aimable Silvie.” The erotic message is as clear as can be.


In Dutch culture the verb ‘vogelen’ (catching a bird) is another word for having sex and a bird escaping from his cage indicates loss of chastity. The lady with the bare breasts, while making the sign of sealed lips to the lady behind her, who is pointing towards heaven, seems to be caressing the bird held in the sleeping man’s groin. 17th century Dutch pictures and poetry are full of birds, and also dogs, with suggestive erotic meanings and the illustration on the present box certainly fits perfectly in this tradition.

The shakudo-style of the box and the Dutch design decoration suggests that either Nagasaki or Batavia might be the place where this box was made for a Dutch client, either by Chinese or by Japanese craftsmen. When Japan closed itself off from the rest of the world in about 1640, the Japanese were not only prohibited from leaving the country but also Japanese abroad were forbidden to return. Some Japanese craftsmen remained outside Japan, in China, Tonkin and Batavia where they possibly continued to perform their ‘shakudo’ Japanese crafts, called ‘sawasa’ in Batavia. However, the ubiquitous Chinese certainly also mastered this technique.


A similar box was auctioned at Bonhams Hong Kong, 24 November 2013,

lot 6, in the sale of the ‘Speelman Collection of Imperial Tribute Snuff Boxes’. This box also has several erotic references; a European lady wearing loose clothing, with an exotic bird perched on her left hand, a man peeping and in the background a farmer spreading seedlings. The inside of the lid bearing a scene of two figures indulged in passionate kissing, flanked by a pair of doves. Surely, a Dutchman having a little tobacco or snuff with his friends, chuckled at this very erotic, though prudish, imagery.

A Sawasa-ware export silver and gold tobacco box


Japan, Nagasaki, 17th century

L. 11.3 x W. 4.7 x W. 3.3 cm
Weight 169 grams

This is probably the work of Chinese silversmiths working in Nagasaki. Chinese and Japanese metalworkers in Nagasaki made objects following similar designs and manufacturing techniques but mostly in different materials; the Chinese using silver and the Japanese an alloy of copper, gold, silver, arsenic and antimony, known as shakudo (or sawasa as known in Batavia by the Dutch). The present silver box has apparent similarities with shakudo tobacco boxes. Usually, the decoration in these cast and chiselled utilitarian boxes is Chinese, showing trees, flowers, animals, birds, insects and Chinese temples with their flags. The present box, however, has a unique Western design with grapevines and grape bunches all around, and peonies in the centre of the bottom. Grapes are the symbol of the Last Supper and therefore the blood of Jesus Christ.
In 17th century Japan, however this symbol, if recognised as Christian, was forbidden, as Christianity was banned in Japan. Peonies symbolise romance and prosperity and are regarded as an omen of good fortune and happy marriage. The inside of the box is gilded.
The top of the box is provided with a gold plate depicting three Japanese ladies attending a tea ceremony in the pleasure quarters for which Nagasaki was renowned. One of the ladies is playing the Shamisan. A similar tea ceremony is depicted on an early shakudo, black and gold tobacco box
from circa 1650-60 (John Hawkins, Chinese silversmiths working in Nagasaki between 1660 and 1800, The Journal of the Silver Society nr. 33, p. 139-158).


Provenance: Michael Lindörfer, a violin maker in Weimar
On a photograph dated 01- 02-1969, Lindörfer is shown presenting a violin to David Oistrach.

Sawasa kopje.jpg



Edo period, early 18th century

With a gilt foot-ring and inside, with a handle to one side of the cup in the form of a leafy branch with prunus flowers, extending along the sides of the cup, ending in two leaves at the opposite end of the cup with a small rose on the rim, with a cartouche to each side with gilt floral sprays in high-relief, as well as a round cartouche with flower decoration.

H. 4.7 x W. 7.5 cm

For a Sawasa cup with saucer see Uit Verre Streken, November 2018, item 51.
For further reading see the exhibition catalogue, Japanese export art in black and gold, 1650-1800, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, 1999.

Sawasa kop en schotel.jpg



Edo-period, early 18th century


The black-lacquered cup with gilt handles in the shape of sculptured chrysanthemums and a lobbed edge decorated with gilt engraved border, with a gilt foot-ring that fits into the saucer ring, with two cartouches showing partly undercut gilt relief trees and birds on a gilt granulated background, black lacquered bracket-lobed edge, depicting gilt engraved peony scrolls and three cartouches decorated with high relief gilt trees and birds on a gilt granulated background, the centre with engraved chrysanthemum, enclosed by a raised ring upon which the cup fits, around which a circular panel decorated with high gilt relief trees, flowers, birds and a butterfly on a gilt granulated background.

Cup: H. 5.7 x W. 8.5 cm
Saucer: Diam. 13 cm


Collection Felix Schäfer



The decoration of the cup and saucer is identical to the slightly smaller cup and saucer in the collection of the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam (inv. No. NG-1994-37-1/E). In a still life painting by Pieter Gerritszoon van Roestraten (1627-1700), three pairs of similar Sawasa cups and saucers are depicted (Sawasa, Japanese export art in black and gold, 1650-1800, Rijksmuseum 1998, fig. 12).



18th century

Sawasa alloy of 94% copper, 2% gold, 1.5% silver and 1.2% arsenic, the jar consists of an inside gilt copper box with a gilt lid and an outer jar of black lacquered open relief scrolling foliage with a cover with a knob finial.

Diam. 12.5 x H. 14.2 cm


These tobacco jars were made for the Dutch and for export.
A similar one is in the collection of the Rijksmuseum (illustrated in Sawasa, Japanese export art in black and gold, 1650-1800, pg.78).