Lot 3135. A rare mother-of-pearl inlaid box and cover, Song dynasty. Estimate 1,200,000 — 1,500,000 HKD. Lot sold 1,220,000 HKD. Photo: Sotheby's.

of rectangular form, the cover lavishly inlaid with fine iridescent slivers of mother-of-pearl with a scene of an elaborate home richly decorated with floral-panel windows and lotus scrolls on the columns, with two ladies standing in the doorway looking out at the trellised enclosure, on the other side of the fence two figures stand with a shovel and a hoe possibly gathering pine cones or rocks into two baskets, in the corner stand two further servants looking out into the distance in anticipation of an arrival, all framed with a herringbone border along the edge, the sides with a composite floral scroll, the sides of the box similarly decorated with floral scroll, the interior set with a removable red lacquer tray now fitted with an Edo period iron Japanesesuiteki (water dropper) in the form of a basket with flowers, and a duan inkstone with a circular depressed ring and notches around the sides, the reverse with sloped grinding surface, the interior lacquered in red; 22.1 cm., 8 3/4 in.

Notes: Lacquer wares decorated with mother-of-pearl inlay of the Song dynasty are extremely rare.  The artist who made the present box used wafer thin shells that allowed the creation of complex pictorial scenes which include architectural details, as well as human figures with identifiable facial expressions. Much skill and ingenuity has gone into its making, with the inlay especially fine and delicate compared to that seen on later examples.

An almost identical box to the present piece was included in the exhibition Chugoku no raden (Mother-of-Pearl Inlay in Chinese Lacquer Art), Tokyo National Museum, 1981, cat. no. 25, where, at the time, it was attributed to the 14th century. The same figural scene, most probably taken from a contemporary woodblock print, although its source has not been identified, can also be found on an octagonal covered box, from the collection of Sir John and Lady Figgess, illustrated in Sir Harry Garner, Chinese Lacquer, London, 1979, pls. 163 and 164, where the author mentions the complexity of the inlay technique, with the supplement of in situ incised work of great delicacy that was done before the mother-of-pearl was mounted.

A third tiered box with the same figural decoration, attributed to the Ming dynasty, in the collection of Simon Kwan, is illustrated in Simon Kwan, Chinese Mother-of-Pearl, Hong Kong, 2009, pl. 54; and a square tiered box, from the collection of Florence and Herbert Irving and now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, is published in James C.Y. Watt and Barbara Brennan Ford, East Asian Lacquer, New York, 1991, p. 129, pl. 57. Interestingly, on the Irving box the design has been slightly changed from a rural setting to one that depicts three court ladies and their pet dogs in a fenced courtyard with two ladies watching them from behind a post. On the Irving box the authors note, ibid., p. 129, that known boxes with this design are 'of varying dates, since the differences between them do not result from progressive simplification of the same composition but from the adaptation of parts of existing designs to serve the same pictorial purpose in different compositions.'

For examples of Song inlaid lacquer pieces see two boxes included in the exhibition So Gen no bi, Nezu Institute of Fine Arts, Tokyo, 2004, cat. nos. 122 and 123, the former in the Eisei Bunko Museum of Art, Tokyo.

Sotheby's. Fine Chinese Ceramics & Works of Art, Hong Kong, 04 Apr 2012