Cinnabar Lacquer Box, Ca. 1765

Value (2004) | $7,000 Auction$10,000 Auction

GUEST:
My grandmother apparently purchased it in an antique store in 1930. And when she moved back to China, she gave it to my mother, and my mother had it sitting on her dresser for, oh, gosh, ages, and she gave it to me.

APPRAISER:
So your grandmother purchased this in China?

GUEST:
Yes. In Peking.

APPRAISER:
I see. And when did she come to this country?

GUEST:
I think she came to this country in 1950. My grandfather had been a diplomat, so she'd been back and forth many times, but in 1950, the entire family, including me, we came from Peking to Hong Kong.

APPRAISER:
I see.

GUEST:
And my parents came to the United States , and my grandmother stayed in Hong Kong to take care of me.

APPRAISER:
I see. This is a very interesting and complicated piece. It's a piece of cinnabar lacquer. It was made during the Ch'ien-lung Period. Do you know when that was?

GUEST (chuckling): No.

APPRAISER:
Ch'ien-lung was probably the most forward-thinking emperor of the Ch'ing Dynasty. He lived between 1735 and 1795.

GUEST:
Wow.

APPRAISER:
He had a group of great imperial craftsmen working for him and was interested very much in the natural world. His reign is known for gorgeous white jades, lovely pieces of cinnabar lacquer, scholars' objects, all with puns and rebuses and stories attached to them.

GUEST:
Really?

APPRAISER:
So my colleague and I were trying to figure out what the rebus is of the cricket and the melon, which, of course, reflects actually how you would find a melon in nature:

GUEST:
Mm-hmm.

APPRAISER:
surrounded by crickets and leaves and things like this, and we haven't quite finished our research. But here you have a cricket, you have prunus here, you have melons, you have wonderful leaves, all carved out of three layers of lacquer. The first layer, and it's really not easy to see, but it is yellow, which is meant to simulate gold.

GUEST:
Oh.

APPRAISER:
Above that is a green lacquer. And above this is this lovely cinnabar red color. Each layer was applied in a hundred coats.

GUEST:
A hundred coats? You're kidding.

APPRAISER:
And then left to dry for three days before the next layer was applied in a different color. So it was a very painstaking process. And look at the quality of carving. This quality of carving could only have been done in the Ch'ien-lung Period.

GUEST:
Really?

APPRAISER:
And what's very interesting is that your grandmother or grandfather or someone from your family knew that this was quite a fragile piece.

GUEST:
Yes.

APPRAISER:
So, look what they said here. "Keep this ring in place when shipping or transporting from place to place."

GUEST:
Yes. (laughing)

APPRAISER:
That's great. Cinnabar lacquer is actually not only made of layers of lacquer from a tree--

GUEST:
Mm-hmm.

APPRAISER:
--but it has layers of fabric as well. At auction today, this item would bring between $7,000 and $10,000.

GUEST:
Wow. Wow. Did they do these, like, 100 melons? Or did they do one at a time, do you think?

APPRAISER:
We don't know. There weren't probably 100 made of these. There were maybe 20 or 30 at a time, because the craftsmen-- although they were quite good-- could die from these substances. These were highly toxic.

GUEST:
Oh, really?

APPRAISER:
Highly toxic. It's a wonderful piece and thank you so much for bringing it to us.

GUEST:
Thank you.

Appraisal Details

Appraiser
Bonhams, San Francisco
San Francisco, California
Appraised value (2004)
$7,000 Auction$10,000 Auction
Event
Reno, NV (August 14, 2004)
Period
18th Century
Form
Box

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