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5Namban Coffer, Japan, Momoyama period (1573–1615), late 16th–early 17th century Black lacquered hinoki cypress, gold lacquer, mother-of-pearl, copper mounts, 47.593.840.1cm Acquired in 2009 by the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, from Jorge Welsh Oriental Porcelain & Works of Art, Lisbon and London In 2009 the recently formed Friends of the Rijksmuseum bought, at Maastricht, a splendid large late 16th-century lacquered Japanese coffer (dated cautiously by the Rijksmuseum to 1575–1625), beautifully decorated with engraved copper and inlaid with mother-of-pearl, featuring elaborate imagery of trees and animals. The dealer
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who sold the piece, Jorge Welsh, is a formidable scholar and specialist in the field of oriental works of art related to the Portuguese expansion.
From the first arrival of Portuguese adventurers on Japanese territory in 1542– 43 until 1639, when the Portuguese were expelled from Japan, Portugal dominated trade between Japan and Europe. One of the most important categories of goods they brought back to Europe was Japanese lacquer – to an eager market. Indeed, during the 16th century Japanese lacquer reached such a pinnacle of refinement that even the Chinese imported it. The European appetite for lacquer encouraged the Japanese to begin making lacquer pieces especially adapted to their new customers, whom they named namban, or ‘southern Barbarian’, a word first coined to describe the Portuguese.
According to Mr Welsh, these namban coffers, though fine ones are rare, were a fairly common product. ‘At the time, Europeans would take between one and three years to reach Japan – everything had to be portable. This would have been used to transport the personal goods of someone very wealthy.’ Mr Welsh found this example in a private European collection. ‘It had been discarded for a long time, and so not much handled, and was covered with dust,’ he recalls. ‘When we cleaned it, it was in beautiful condition.’ Mr Welsh restored the piece and included it in an exhibition he mounted in Lisbon in 2008, supported by a lavish catalogue. According to Jan van Campen, curator for Asian export art and ceramics at the Rijksmuseum, his head of department ‘had the opportunity to see the object in Lisbon and said it was a wonderful object. He persuaded Mr Welsh to bring the object to TEFAF.’
As Mr van Campen explains, the importance of the object to the Rijksmuseum lies in its relationship to the Dutch trade in lacquer. ‘This is exactly the kind of object that Europe really had a taste for – and we did not have a major example. This is the start of the interest in such things.’ By the time the Dutch also began trading with Japan around 1600, and certainly by the time it won the monopoly on trade with Europe in 1640, the demand was entrenched. In addition, the Dutch East India Company used Japanese lacquer as lavish gifts for Asian potentates, and for trade throughout Asia. So popular had it become that even as early as 1609 William Kick (active c. 1609–30), among other craftsmen, was making Japanned ware in Holland – but the acme of quality was Japanese lacquer. As Mr van Campen explains, ‘We have some early 17th-century Dutch imitation pieces by Kick, so we are now able to put these objects together.’
Such was the excitement about the piece, and its purchase for the Rijksmuseum by the Friends, that Mr Welsh’s stand was besieged by 30 or 40 people. ‘They all had to come to the stand to inspect the piece,’ he recalls. The Rijksmuseum honoured its arrival with a special exhibition last summer. o David Ghezelbash Archéologie DG
Whitemarble. Greek,hellenisticperiod,ca. 1stcenturyB.C. H.:24,8cm.
Ex.DocteurBernhardKommelcollection, Cambridge,Massachusetts,(U.S.A), acquiredca.1954.
Showcase Tefaf, Maastricht, from 18th to 27th March 2011
Galerie David Ghezelbash
12 rue Jacob - 75006 Paris du mardi au samedi de 14h à 19h Galerie: + 33 (0)1 46 33 64 81 mobile + 33 (0) 6 88 23 39 11 firstname.lastname@example.org www.davidghezelbash.fr