3. Rare Chinese Huanghuali Box for Dutch Market
width: 39.2cm, depth: 28.4cm, height: 9.5cm
This fine wooden writing box is of huanghuali wood (Dalbergia hainanensis), with a tielimu wood panel to the base, and engraved paktong (baitong) mounts. It is an exceptionally rare and early example of a Chinese-made wooden writing box in the colonial Dutch style and almost certainly was made for the Dutch East Indian Company (VOC), or its agents.
It brings together the classic form of a Dutch VOC document box more commonly associated with the VOC-Dutch officialdom of Batavia and Sri Lanka in combination with rare Chinese hardwoods. It is noticeably better made than most extant examples of VOC document boxes made in Batavia or Sri Lanka. The joints, for example, have been completed with particularly fine and tightly fitting dovetail joins, and overall, the construction is especially solid.
This type of box draws on a tradition of box making for the local Chinese market. Such boxes were taller and designed as storage chests. Often they too had paktong mounts. An example of such a box, also in huanghuali, in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and illustrated in Jacobsen & Grindley (1999, p. 190) has a similar base with bevelled edges, similar ruyi or stylised cloud motif-shaped paktong mounts and is attributed to the seventeenth century.
This group of VOC-relayed boxes almost certainly was made by Chinese woodworking masters in the seventeenth century Tao/Confucian huanghuali tradition. It is one of a small group of known boxes of this form made for the Dutch most probably via Zheng Zhilong, a Ming dynasty China trade merchant, in the aftermath of the Battle of Liaoluo Bay in 1633.
The wood is solid and lustrous with a rich patina. It has a strong grain with alternating light and dark streaks.
The box has fine engraved paktong mounts - at each corner, plus there is an engraved paktong key plate, cast paktong handles on either side with associated engraved silver plates, numerous paktong rivet covers, and inside, there are paktong hinge straps. A paktong sand box is also inside - making this box even more unusual. All the main mounts are engraved with lotus blossom motifs.
Such boxes were used by colonial Dutch officials in India, Sri Lanka, the East Indies (present-day Indonesia) and elsewhere. Senior officials of and merchants in the service of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) were required to routinely send written communications about trade, local political developments, culture and any other events or observations deemed potentially useful for the Company's interests. Usually everything had to be copied three or four times (Veenendaal, 1985, p. 85). Accordingly, portable writing cabinets and boxes were much in demand in late seventeenth and eighteenth century Batavia, India
and Sri Lanka.
Huanghuali (which means 'yellow pear tree flower') is rare and now largely extinct in China. There are believed to be fewer than 10,000 pieces of huanghuali furniture worldwide. The wood is a high-density wood, with a high oil content that protects it from humidity. Its grain is very beautiful, and the surface feels soft to the touch.
The most beautiful huanghuali items of furniture were produced by cabinet-makers in China's lower Yangtze river basin during the golden age of Ming Dynasty furniture in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. The wood was much prized and always was expensive. It was reserved for furniture constructed for the court and for the wealthy and elite scholarly class.
The exterior of the box here is in excellent condition. There is no warping whatsoever and no dents or splits. The grain of the wood is particularly beautiful. Overall, this a very fine example.
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Jacobsen, R.D. & N. Grindley, Classical Chinese Furniture: In the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Paragon Publishing, 1999.
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Paterson, Kirkwood, (scholar or rare Asian woods and furniture), pers. comm., September 2015.
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Veenendaal, J., Furniture from Indonesia, Sri Lanka and India During the Dutch Period, Foundation Volkenkundig Museum Nusantara, 1985.
Zandvlieyt, K. et al, The Dutch Encounter with Asia 1600-1950, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, 2002.
Detail: front view