mazarin Chest
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extensive description and history of the Mazarin Chest (in french)


by Stephanie Perris

" We now set off for Japan, with this sumptuous cedar wood chest with lacquer decoration on a black background: the star of this springtime event. Without being bombastic or going over the top, we can say that this nagabitsu (long clothes chest) is a particularly fine example of Japanese lacquer, combining all the main techniques in a single object: maki-e, kirikane and hanagai... The refined decoration and high-quality execution place the chest alongside pieces designed for the marriage trousseaus of the Japanese elite, notably the one made for the betrothal of the Princess Chiyohime, daughter of the shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu. Now in the Tokugawa Museum in Nagoya, the 75 pieces in this trousseau were made between 1637 and 1639 in the workshop of Nagashige, one of the Köami family of lacquerers, active in Kyoto. The chest here is also inspired by the famous Tale of Genji, a celebrated novel written in the 11th century by Murasaki-Shikibu, who lived at the imperial court during the Heian period. It also features several scenes from the Tale of the Soga Brothers, a folk story from the Edo period based on a real event, written by an anonymous author in the 14th century. Lastly, this chest, like the smaller version now in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, vaunts a splendid pedigree lovingly detailed by the auction house. It belonged to Cardinal Jules Mazarin, who bought it in Amsterdam in 1658. At the time, Japan had prohibited the export of major lacquer pieces for 17 years. But as luxury objects, they were sold for spanking profits by the Dutch East India Company. After the Cardinal's death, this chest went to one of his nieces, probably Hortense Mancini, then entered the collection of the poet Thomas Beckford, and later that of the Duke of Hamilton (the V & A acquired its own example at the Hamilton sale in 1882), before being bought in 1916 by Sir Clifford Cory. It resurfaced in the collections of Dr. Zaniewski in London, and left England in the 1970s for the Loire Valley in France, not far from the Château de Cheverny… to which all roads lead in the end!"

the daIlY mail: The £6million TV stand: Sold for a fortune, antique chest that cost £100 and 'got lost' for 70 years

  • Victoria and Albert Museum had been searching worldwide for it since 1941
  • Put the rare antique was being used as a TV stand just three miles away
  • The Japanese antique had been expected to sell for just £200,000

By Paul Harris, 11 July 2013

For more than half a century they had scoured the world for it, put out feelers to any likely collector, sent its description to international auction houses.But there was one place the Victoria & Albert museum didn’t look in their hunt for the rare antique Japanese chest. It was under someone’s telly in a house a few hundred yards away.

Unknown to the museum and a legion of experts who joined the search, the exquisitely decorated 17th century lacquered coffer, one of only ten left in the world, was being used as a TV stand by an owner unaware of its exceptional provenance.Yesterday the 4ft 8in lidded casket, bought for £100 and also used as a drinks cabinet, became a treasure chest in its own right.

It sold at auction for £6.3million – and once again eluded the V&A when it was snapped up by a Dutch museum. 
The ornate coffer, fashioned in cedar wood, metal and gold lacquer, is believed to have been made in Kyote by master craftsman Kaomi Nagashige.

It bears intricate depictions of celebrated Japanese myths, including The Tale of Genji, widely acclaimed as the world’s first novel.What the illustrations do not reveal, however, is the extraordinary saga of the chest’s travels from sought-after artwork to makeshift piece of furniture.

The story begins in 1640 when the head of the Dutch East India Company’s Japanese office commissioned an order including ‘four extraordinarily fine coffers’.  They were sold 18 years later with other lacquerware to French First Minister Cardinal Mazarin, and added to his extensive collection.

Two were later acquired by British poet William Beckford. Beckford’s daughter Euphemia married the Duke of Hamilton and the coffers would form part of the Hamilton Palace contents sale of 1882, staged to raise funds for the palace upkeep.The V&A bought one coffer and the other, a larger one, was sold to collector Sir Trevor Lawrence, then to Welsh colliery owner Sir Clifford Cory.  When Sir Clifford died in 1941, as one expert phrased it: ‘It disappeared off the radar.’

Unknown to the art world, a London-based Polish doctor called Zaniewski had bought it at a bargain price – and later sold it to a French Shell Oil engineer in 1970 for £100. At current values it would equate to roughly £1,250 – around 5,000 times less than the chest is now worth. Trouble was, the Frenchman decided the chest would make a fine base for his television.  And for 16 years, that’s what he used it for at his house in South Kensington, just a three-minute walk from the V&A. Meanwhile the museum and other interested parties continued their search.

When the engineer retired in 1986 he took it home to the Loire Valley, where he used it as a drinks bar and store cabinet. It resurfaced only after he died, when his family began a clear-out.Auctioneer Philippe Rouillac and his brother Aymeric recognised the chest’s likely worth and traced its remarkable history before it sold in France yesterday.Delighted Dutch curator Menno Fitski, head of East Asian art at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, said: ‘The thing to note about this chest is that it is the best of the best: It was the best when it was made and the same still applies today. It has an incredible back story which makes it all the more special.’

The chest's detailing has been very well preserved... despite having had a television sat on it for years!Worth £6.3million? ‘Yes, it was a lot of money, but you have to pay for quality and it is worth every penny.’Julia Hutt, curator of the V&A’s East Asian department, said she was relieved the chest had resurfaced.She added: ‘It would have been fantastic for us to have been able to bid for the chest but like many museums around the world we didn’t have the money.‘I was delighted to hear the Rijksmuseum had won the auction – it is a very fitting home for the chest.’

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THE ANTIQUE TRADE GAZETTE: Rediscovered Japanese coffer snared by Rijksmuseum at £5m

 By Ane Crane, 13 July 2013

AN exceptional piece of 17th century Japanese export lacquer with a provenance to match has produced the highest auction price in France this year when it was sold to the Rijksmuseum for a hammer price of €5.9m (£5.26m). The coffer was discovered by auctioneer Philippe Rouillac in the Loire valley earlier this year, converted into a drinks bar. M. Rouillac’s brother Aymeric then traced its remarkable history and it duly featured as the star lot in Rouillac’s 25th auction at the Château de Cheverny on June 9.

Measuring a substantial 4ft 8in (1.44m) wide, the coffer was produced in the Edo period c.1640 probably in the Kyoto workshop of Kaomi Nagashige. It is decorated inside and out in various gold lacquer techniques on a black ground with Japanese myths and views including the Tale of Genji. Another craftsman, Goto Kenjo, probably did the metalwork on the cover. It is thought to come from a group of high status Japanese lacquer export pieces, around ten of which have survived, commissioned by François Caron, head of the Dutch East India Company’s office in Japan, from the Kyoto lacquer studios. Caron’s order included “four extraordinarily fine coffers”. Due to the 30 Years War and other factors, these remained in the company’s entrepôt until 1658.

The coffer was one of several lacquerwares (including a similar, smaller chest) that were then purchased by the French ambassador in Amsterdam on behalf of Cardinal Mazarin (1602-61) for his extensive works of art collection. Mazarin’s coffers passed down by descent and were sold at separate contents sales, both ending up being acquired by the famous English collector William Beckford, in 1801 and 1802. Later owned by Beckford’s daughter Euphemia, wife of the Duke of Hamilton, they formed part of the famous Hamilton Palace contents sale in 1882. At that Hamilton sale the small companion coffer was purchased by the Victoria and Albert Museum, while this larger example was purchased first by Sir Trevor Lawrence then Sir Clifford John Cory (1859-1941), after whose death it disappeared off the radar. Its re-emergence at the Rouillac’s sale fills in the gaps. It was probably purchased at the Cory auction by a London-based collector, Dr Zaniewski, then went to Zaniewski’s friend, a French engineer for Shell Petroleum, ending up in the Loire valley on his retirement in 1986.

At the Cheverny auction, the coffer was offered with a tempting starting price of €200,000 and no reserve but expectations were much higher (€3m-5m). It was the subject of a battle between the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and a major American museum who were the underbidders. The Rijksmuseum’s purchase (€7.31m including buyer’s premium) was made with sponsorship from the Jaffe-Pierson Stichtung; the BankGiro Loterij and the Vereninging Rembrandt. It is thought to be the second-highest price paid at auction for a Japanese work of art, behind the $12.8m (£6.7m) bid by the Japanese company Mitsukoshi Co Ltd for a late 12th/early 13th century gold lacquered cypress wood of the supreme Buddha Dainichi Nyorai at Christie’s New York in March 2008.

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