Formerly owned by the distinguished Japanese collector, dealer, and connoisseur Sakamoto Gor (1923–2016) and once exhibited at the Samsung Ho’am Gallery, Seoul, this rare, sixteenth- to seventeenth-century, Korean lacquer stationery box has an enviable history. Its decoration, inlaid in mother of pearl, features stylized lotus blossoms and buds that scroll gracefully over the cover’s top and sides.
Although they superficially resemble—and, indeed, are often incorrectly termed—orchids, or even peony blossoms, the flowers depicted on this box are actually stylized lotus blossoms, as indicated by the appearance of the associated buds. The stylized blossoms—which are known as fanlian in Chinese and as byeonryeon in Korean—likely first appeared in the silk textiles of China’s Song dynasty (960– 1279). Popularized in Chinese porcelainsof the Yuan (1279–1368) and Ming (1368–1644) dynasties, the foreign lotus design, or fanlianwen, spread to Korea early in the Joseon dynasty (1392–1910) and was incorporated into the decorative schemes of Korean blue-and-white porcelain, buncheong ware, and inlaid lacquers.
Though little is known of the earliest history of lacquer-making in Korea, archaeological evidence indicates that Korean craftsmen were making lacquered objects at least two thousand years ago, in the late Neolithic and early historic periods. By the Goryeo dynasty (918–1392) Koreans were producing elegant lacquer vessels and sutra-storage chests in black lacquer embellished with small floral designs inlaid in mother of pearl, the designs occasionally augmented with small, twisted, metal wires inset as borders and as the stems in floral arabesques. The tradition of inlaid lacquers continued into the succeeding Joseon dynasty (1392–1910), usually in black lacquer with bold floral designs inlaid in mother of pearl, as witnessed by this important stationery box; increasingly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, however, the tradition expanded to include both red and black lacquers and the inlays to include tortoiseshell, sharkskin, and twisted copper or brass wires in addition to mother of pearl. Differing from the Chinese, who generally preferred cinnabar lacquer with carved decoration, and from the Japanese who tended to favor black lacquer with designs inlaid in gold, Koreans were partial to lacquers with designs inlaid in mother of pearl.
The balanced but slightly asymmetrical design on the cover of this box finds kinship in the designs on contemporaneous Korean buncheong wares with slip-inlaid decoration. In fact, the decorative scheme on this box derives from Korean inlaid lacquers of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, such as the two stationery boxes in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (2015.500.3.1a, b and 2015.500.3.2a, b ). Related boxes are in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (19.652a-b) and of the National Museum of Korea, Seoul (Deoksu 4378 and Deoksu 4182 ).
Its fine quality, exquisite craftsmanship, excellent condition, esteemed provenance, and distinguished exhibition and publication history combine to signal this lacquer box’s exceptional importance. Indeed, the rarity of early and mid-Joseon lacquers with decoration inlaid in mother of pearl makes this box all the more important; in fact, it ranks among the most important such lacquers to come on the market in recent years.