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The Rijksmuseum succeeded in buying a famous 17th-century Japanese lacquered chest of unprecedented quality at a French auction.

“The quality of the decorations is truly unique. I have seldom seen anything so impressive. Not only is the lacquered chest incredibly beautiful, its historical significance is no less important.” Jan van Campen, curator of Asian art

The VOC was known to have brought twelve of these magnificent objects to the Netherlands in the 17th century. These items are currently in foreign ownership. Until recently, the whereabouts of one of these objects was not known. Last Sunday, amidst great international interest, this chest came up for auction in Cheverny, France. With the support of the Jaffé-Pierson Foundation, the BankGiro Lottery and the Rembrandt Association, the Rijksmuseum was able to acquire the chest for 7.3 million euros. The lacquered chest will now be returning to the Netherlands after 350 years.

Dating from the 1730s, the chest was made using the maki-e technique: various types of gold powder are dusted onto wet lacquer in varying degrees of fineness to produce pictures. The quality of this decorative technique is unprecedented and the opulence of the motifs and nuances in the sprinkled gold is enchanting. After 1641 no more Japanese lacquer work of this quality was made for foreign patrons. Dutch VOC servants were the only foreigners who were given access to the workshops where the most exclusive lacquer work was made. Before 1641, when exporting this exceptionally beautiful lacquer work from Japan was banned, they managed to ship twelve sublime objects to the Netherlands, the quality of which was immediately recognised in Europe. France's chief minister cardinal Mazarin, allegedly the richest man and the foremost art collector of his day, bought the chest in Amsterdam in 1658. Mazarin owned two chests of this quality, the largest of which has now been acquired by the Rijksmuseum. The other chest has been at the Victoria & Albert Museum for several years. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the chest was part of the leading European collections of Japanese lacquer work: the Beckford and Hamilton collections.

After 1945, the whereabouts of the chest was unknown, a fact much lamented in publications about lacquer work. For a long time it was assumed that the chest had been lost in London during the Second World War. The fact that it recently came to light in France is remarkable, and the fact that the Rijksmuseum was able to acquire it is no less extraordinary and of both historical and artistic significance. This chest is regarded as the absolute apex of the Asian art of cabinet-making. To date, there have been no objects of such quality in Dutch museums.

Thanks to the three foundations referred to above, the Rijksmuseum is much better placed to display Dutch interests in the relationships between Asia and Europe. The Jaffé-Pierson Foundation considered the purchase of this chest to be so crucial that it made its entire capital available.

Object details: Japanese lacquered chest, 1630-1640, maki-e technique, height 63.5 cm, length 144.5 cm and width 73 cm.

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