On Sunday 9 June 2013 the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam became the proud owner of a famous early 17th century Japanese lacquer chest, measuring circa 1.5 meter in length and decorated in black and gold lacquer and mother-of-pearl. This work of art, said to be used by its previous owners as a bar, depicts scenes from the Tale of Genji and the Tale of the Soga brothers. It is a remarkable acquisition as the chest was long thought to have been destroyed in London during World War II.
Recently however it came to the attention of auctioneers Phillipe and Aymeric Rouillac in France, when appraising a family inventory in the Loire valley. They recognized the piece as the lost Mazarin chest, named after Cardinal Mazarin, who bought it in 1658 in Amsterdam. The VOC (the Dutch East India Company) is known to have imported twelve of such large lacquer chests to the Netherlands before the Japanese government put a ban on the export of these luxurious objects in 1641. Another chest owned by Mazarin, is now in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
When reading the news about the acquisition, I quickly grasped Oliver Impey and Christiaan’s Jörg’s magnum opus Japanese export lacquer 1580-1850 from my bookshelf to look what these two experts had to say about this chest.
In 2004-2005, when I was collecting the illustrations for this publication from various museums and private collectors, Impey and Jörg had told me that of some pieces there only would be old black and white photographs available, as the present whereabouts of these objects were unknown. I was sure that this chest had to be among those black and white illustrations. And yes, on pages 92 and 146 the chest is illustrated, in connection to the V&A Mazarin chest. Impey and Jörg describe it as one of extraordinary quality and they mention that it was bought at the 1882 Hamilton Palace sale by Sir Trevor Lawrence. Later, in 1916 at the Lawrence sale through Christie’s London, the chest changed owners again. From now on the whereabouts of this large chest will be well known and presumably not change anymore for the next generations. The chest is a beautiful addition to the Rijksmuseum’s collection of Dutch overseas history and it is hoped it will be on display in the museum soon.
The Rijksmuseum was able to purchase the Mazarin chest through generous donations of three funds. One of them, the Jaffé-Pierson Fund, donated all of their money in order to secure a successful bid on the French auction. The board has announced that this donation was their last contribution to the art world and that the fund soon will be dissolved.
For a full description of the chest and extensive background and provenance information, see the nineteen pages long information sheet that auction house Rouillac has prepared and that can be downloaded from their website.
See also the announcement of the acquisition on the Rijksmuseum website (in Dutch) and the extensive information on the Victoria and Albert museum website on their Mazarin chest.