This chest is a product of the brief, dynamic period of interaction between East and West around 1600, a period that produced some remarkable art. Between 1571 and 1640 Portuguese traders accompanied by Jesuit missionaries sailed into the Bay of Nagasaki once a year in an enormous carrack. Until 1624 there was also a small trade between the Japanese and the Spanish, who were based in the Philippine Islands. The Dutch East India Company arrived in 1609.
The Portuguese took advantage of local craftsmanship to commission utensils that they could use in their new churches in Japan or export to the West for profit. Late 16th-century Japanese lacquer was highly prized in Europe and most Nanban [southern barbarian] lacquers, so called because the Iberian traders came to Japan from the south, have been found in recent years in the West.
Nanban lacquers are characterized by a density of decoration that seems quite un-Japanese, and this example is no exception. No surface is left uncovered. The formal geometric borders and strong symmetry are also alien to traditional Japanese design.
The Nanban lacquers are distinguished by their use of sparkling mother-of-pearl, a technique that achieved great popularity at this time. There are two possible sources of influence for the increased use of shell. Portuguese traders in Goa acquired objects with wood and ivory inlay produced by Indian craftsmen. Simultaneously, Hideyoshi's invasion of Korea in the late 16th century may have exposed the Japanese to Korean lacquers, which are lavishly decorated with shell inlay.
See another very impressive Nanban chest with domed lid and three drawers, sold in our London Rooms, 16 June 1999, lot 135.