Reputedly acquired by Count Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff, the German Ambassador to China during the beginning of the 20th century. The chest was then purchased by Edgar Worch, the then foremost dealer in Chinese Art in Germany, who sold it in 1923 to Mr and Mrs Kaufmann in Berlin. When the Kaufmanns immigrated to the United States, the chest was transported to Boston, where upon Mr Kaufmann's death in 1955, Mrs Kaufmann sold the chest to Paul Bernheimer, a Boston art dealer, who in turn passed it on to Miss Grace Kaler of Maine.
Chests of this type can be considered as the forerunner to air-conditioning as their utiliterian purpose was for the storage of ice blocks, so as to cool the air during hot Summer months. The two apertures in the cover allowed cool air to escape, which could then be distributed by servants with hand held fans, or they were placed under dining tables to cool those sitting at them. A related large cloisonné enamel example of rectangular form supported by a cloisonné figure on each of the shorter sides formerly from the Summer Palace, and now in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, is illustrated by S. W. Bushell, Chinese Art, vol. II, Victoria and Albert Museum Handbooks, London, 1919; and again by H. Garner, Chinese and Japanese Cloisonné, p. 71.
Traditionally, ice-chests were constructed of wood to which the shape of the present example appertains; the gilt-metal ribs are replicas of the metal bands that were used to hold the wooden side panels together. As these chests were transportable, they were constructed with sturdy double-handles attached on either side, and as can be expected, with the interior full of ice, it would have been extremely heavy and would require at least two persons to carry the load. An example of huali and hongmu woods with lead lining dated to circa 1700-1850, in the Victoria and Albert Museum, is illustrated by C. Clunas, Chinese Furniture, Victoria and Albert Museum, Far Eastern Series, p. 99, no. 89; the author cites that ice, stored during the winter in underground cellars, were broken up and kept in ice-chests during the summer, ibid, p. 100.
It is also possible that these ice-chests also served to cool foods such as sweet cakes in hot weather. It has been suggested that this is how the word bing or 'ice', attached to the names of certain cold desserts, originated.