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Rediscovered Japanese coffer sells to Rijksmuseum at £5m

09 July 2013Written by Anne Crane

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".

Mazarin's Collection

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.

Bidding Battle

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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