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
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
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
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
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