Years ago I read a book by Peter Watson describing the story of the life of Paolo Veronese’s painting Wisdom and Strength, painted c. 1580 in plague-ridden Venice and covers the four hundred years of the painting’s existence so far, during which it touched the private and public lives of its consecutive owners. If we look up a provenance of a painting on a museum website, in an auction catalogue or in an exhibition catalogue, it looks dry to us: a list of previous owners there to establish a work of art’s authenticity, as closely as possible to the moment when it left its creator’s studio. But the history of the fortunes and failures of the people on that list is shared by the work of art; in a similar and yet a different way. That, to me makes provenance such an interesting field of study and this is the story we now embark on as we follow the Japanese chest we left in the previous post when it was on its way to Europe from Japan, although, as we shall see, the provenance is by no means watertight.
When the chest and its companion lacquer boxes arrived in Amsterdam in the early 1640s, the market for expensive luxury items was poor due to several factors including the Thirty and Eighty Years Wars which at that time raged simultaneously. Money was tight: on September 19, 1648, the Heren XVII (the central command of the United East India Company) passed a resolution to sell their lacquer stock without delay, “in exchange for cash payment.” But it would take until January 1658 before the Japanese chest would find an owner.
Jacques-Auguste de Thou, baron de Meslay, was France’s ambassador in Amsterdam from 1651 to 1661. His covert mission, like that of Alphonso de Lopez for Cardinal de Richelieu before him, was to buy the best art possible for Cardinal Jules Mazarin (1602-1661), particularly Japanese lacquers. Amsterdam, with its extensive Asian network, was the perfect place for this. De Thou wrote on 31 January 1658:
One of the best purchases he [Francis Lescot, a French merchant] made for his master was that of 1658. Lescot returned [to France] on a “battleship“ with beautiful objects for the Cardinal. For this acquisition, Lescot had to compete with an Amsterdam “rogue”. The purchase was most probably made at auction.
Having little by little become “as powerful as God the Father when the world began”, enjoying the revenues of twenty-seven abbacies, always ready to enrich himself by whatever means, Cardinal Mazarin had more wonderful art works in his own palace than the French king in his. In spite of the political crisis and Civil War (the Fronde), he was able to build an enormous collection that reflected his Italian origins and international connections. He was also particularly fond of Japanese lacquer: the inventory of his furniture warehouse at his death in 1661 lists 206 precious lacquer objects. This “Chinese lacquer furniture” was housed in the first floor gallery of the Palais Mazarin, today the Galerie Mazarine in the Bibliotèque National de France in Paris (see the engraving by Nanteuil above). The measurements of one of the lacquer chests given in the inventory enables us to identify the Rijksmuseum chest as No. 829; the smaller chest, today known as the Mazarin Chest in the Victoria and Albert Museum, as No. 810. Both are described as “Chinese lacquer boxes”.
The next owners are a bit more problematic. It is certain that a large part of Mazarin’s lacquer chests remained in his family after his death, but it is not certain who inherited our chest. To begin with, Mazarin had seven nieces. It was either the eldest, Hortense Mancini (1646-1699), wife of Armand-Charles de la Porte de La Meilleraye, or another niece, possibly Marie-Anne Mancini (1649-1714), wife the 1st Duc de Bouillon, who inherited the chest on the death of their uncle. In his will the Cardinal had favoured Hortense and her husband but he also richly endowed each of his six other nieces, assigning to each of them 40,000 pounds worth of “furniture, jewels, rings and remaining jewelry and silverware […]” for them to divide between themselves as they saw fit. What is certain is that, upon Hortense Mancini’s death, her husband inherited, according to No. 626 of Hortense’s death inventory, “a large Chinese chest with a bridge and a Chinese woman.” This description could well correspond with the so-called Mazarin Chest in the Victoria & Albert Museum.
In 1781, Jeanne Louise Durfort, Duchess of Rethel, Mayenne, La Meilleraye and Mazarin, died at the age of 45. The sale of her collection, the catalogue of which was published by LeBrun, was held on 10 December and the following days. At the very end of the catalogue are listed six lacquer objects, starting with No. 357 which is described as “a large wooden chest, black background with dragons in gold and trimmed with golden brass, placed on carved & gilded foot.” The description could fit our chest, but again, this is not absolutely certain. Jeanne Louise was related to Hortense, Cardinal Mazarin’s eldest niece who may have bequeathed this chest to her. She was the aunt of the last Duc de Bouillon, the next owner of our chest.
Jacques Leopold Charles Godefroy de La Tour d’ Auvergne, 7th Duc de Bouillon (1746-1802), either inherited the chest upon the death of his father (through the husband of Mazarin’s niece Marie-Anne, the 1st Duc de Bouillon) in 1792 or he may have bought it at his aunt Jeanne Louise Durfort’s sale in 1781. His taste for old Japanese lacquer is documented: in 1777, for instance, he bought the much smaller Van Diemen box which came from the collection of the Marquise de Pompadour at the Randon de Boisset sale. However, from March 1800 he was forced to pay an astronomical sum to recover his duchy which had been sequestered during the Revolution and this meant that he gradually had to sell his collections.
At one of the Duc de Bouillon collection’s sales, on 21 July 1801, a Parisian haberdasher called Darnault bought 51 lacquer items “for Mr. Beckforth” (sic). Our chest is possibly No. 6 of the invoice sent by Darnault to the Duke of Beckford the following month:
A large trunk 3 feet long by two wide and two high. The panels depict landscapes with figures and animals, mills etc., all inlaid in gold and silver embossed. The frames of said panels represent ornaments and rosettes inlaid in gold and mother-of-pearl […], all in the most perfect state of preservation.
Darnauld paid the sum of 1,280 francs for the chest. In total he spent 5,888 francs on the 51 lacquer items, suggesting that the chest described is possibly the largest item and therefore our chest.
William Beckford, only legitimate son of wealthy plantation owner of the same name, was the heir to an immense fortune. In 1771, when Beckford was ten years old, he inherited £1,000,000 (roughly £100 million today) and an income which his contemporaries estimated at around £100,000 per annum (equivalent to roughly £10 million). Newspapers of the period described him as “the richest commoner in England”. A passionate art collector, Gothic novelist, critic, travel writer and sometime politician, he had acquired an early taste for Japanese lacquers. A few months prior to the Duc de Bouillon sale of July 1801, Beckford wrote in a letter: “I feel I shall never be good for anything in this world but composing airs, building towers, forming gardens, collecting old japan.” The “towers” no doubt referred to Fonthill Abbey, the Gothic revival extravaganza with its extraordinary tower that was being constructed for him by architect James Wyatt at the time. Two Japanese lacquer chests are listed among Beckford’s property at Fonthill Abbey in 1812: on the east side of the Gallery stood “a large Japan chest inlaid with curious devices in pearl and silver; the bordering […] uncommonly rich”. It is thought that Beckford bought the smaller Mazarin Chest at the property sale of “Citizen Juillot” in 1802; it and other lacquer boxes are listed in the oratory at Fonthill.
Fonthill Abbey, due to Beckford’s haste in getting it finished, was badly constructed, its tower built with inappropriate materials that were inadequate to support such a massive structure. The tower collapsed twice but when it collapsed a third and final time in 1825 Beckford had already sold the property to John Farquhar, who had made a fortune selling gunpowder in India. Farquhar at once auctioned the art and furnishings in the famous Fonthill Sale of 1823. In the sale, organised by Phillips, our chest gets a rave review:
A SUPERB COFFER OF RAISED JAPAN, presumed the largest specimen known of this superior quality; the LID without and within, as also the FRONT and SIDES, are covered with representations of buildings and landscapes, of the finest raised and spangled Japan, and with animals in SOLID gold and silver. This unique specimen of Japanese art was formerly the property of CARDINAL MAZARIN, and belonged, subsequently to the DUC de BOUILLON.
At the sale, Beckford himself and his son-in-law the Duke of Hamilton were heavy purchasers, often buying items more cheaply than the original price Beckford had paid. On September 27, 1823, on the fifteenth day of sale, the chest was bought for 131 pounds and 5 shillings by a man called Swaby who probably acted as an agent for Beckford.
Where his father-in-law William Beckford had been called the “richest commoner in England”, Alexander, 10th Duke of Hamilton (1767-1852) who married Beckford’s daughter Susan Euphemia in 1810, was called in one obituary “the proudest man in England.” He was quite a dandy and a great art collector with a great interest in Egyptian mummies that went so far that he persuaded a mummy expert to mummify him after death. He and his wife had settled in Hamilton Palace, a large country house located north-east of Hamilton, South Lanarkshire, Scotland (destroyed in 1927). Interestingly, attached to the bottom of our chest a label was found with the text William Murray Carver & Gilder To His Grace the Duke of Hamilton & Brandon 25 Buchanan Street Glasgow, Architectural Coats of Arms, Ships and Furniture Carving, leaving no doubt that the chest was, either by descent or by purchase, in Hamilton’s possession.
The chest remained in the Hamilton family until, ruined, Hamilton’s grandson William Douglas-Hamilton, 12th Duke of Hamilton, sold off the Hamilton Palace collection in 1882. The sale, arranged by Christie, Manson & Woods lasted thirteen days. Our chest is sold on the eleventh day, 10 July 1882, and is described as:
A VERY FINE OBLONG COFFER, OF OLD JAPAN LACQUER, with a large landscape, buildings, threes and a river, with a bridge and figures in the foreground, in border of birds and scrolls, animals and birds in gold and silver in relief, similar landscapes on the front and ends and inside the lid, black and gold trellis-border, with circular ornaments, inlaid with mother-o’-pearl, chased metal-gilt mounts –on carved and gilt wood stand -4ft. 6 in. by 2 ft 3 in. From the Collections of the Cardinal Mazarin, the Duc de Bouillon and Fonthill.
It was at this sale that the Victoria and Albert Museum purchased the Japanese chest today known as the Mazarin Chest. Our chest was sold to Trevor Lawrence and this gave it its – hopefully temporary – name, the Lawrence Chest.
At the Hamilton sale, Sir James John Trevor Lawrence, 2nd Baronet (1831-1913), President of the Royal Horticultural Society, philanthropist and collector, bought the chest together with other Asian art. His lacquer boxes were exhibited in 1894 at the Burlington Fine Arts Club. The beautifully printed book describing his Japanese art collection was published privately at the expense of the author in 1895. Our chest, numbered 1110, is thus described:
hitsu (a chest) Probably used as a receptacle for dresses.. Size, 4 ft. 8 in. long by 2 ft. 2 in 2 ft high. 4 in. wide, decorated on all sides with scenes in gold on black lacquer, Contained within a triple Bordering of diapers and floral design in gold and mother-of-pearl. The scenes depicts flowers gardens, building, bridges, and ornamental waters, and in Court by All which ladies and children walk and play. The chest is bound with brass and gilt angle plates, decorated hinges, and fittings, the plate surrounding the keyhole. Having an elaborate design with a panel upon a nashiji ground.“
The sale of Lawrence’s estate after his death was spread over three sessions in May, November and December 1916.
Our chest was offered on the third day of the first sale, 29 May 1916 and was bought by Sir Clifford Cory (1859-1941), a Welsh colliery owner, coal exporter and Liberal Party politician. Sir Clifford Corey died in 1941 and in the middle of the turmoil of World War II his estate was sold at auction with the lacquer chest described solely as “a large Chinese chest”. And there, it appeared, the trail ended. Fraught with uncertainties and possible false leads that still need to be thoroughly researched, we were able to more or less follow the Rijksmuseum or Lawrence chest from Japan to the United Kingdom throughout the four centuries since it was created in the lacquer workshops of the Shogun court.
The Victoria and Albert Museum, as we have seen, had purchased a similar, smaller chest, also once owned by Cardinal Mazarin. Its larger counterpart had featured in the same 1882 sale, but where was it? The Museum started looking for it in earnest in the 1980s, launching an appeal in Country Life and again on their website in 2000:
How can a chest of such supreme quality and exceptional size have disappeared like this? Did it suffer at the hands of enemy action during World War II, or is it gathering dust somewhere in a proverbial attic unrecognised for what it is by its current owner? The V&A is very keen to locate the Lawrence Chest or identify who bought it from the 1941 sale as this would be of enormous benefit to our research on the Mazarin Chest.
By a quirk of fate in the 1980s the chest was actually only a few minutes walk from the museum: at the home of a Polish doctor named Zaniewsky who had bought it at the Cory auction for a pittance. He was evidently not a Country Life reader. The doctor sold the chest in 1970 to a tenant of his, a French engineer who worked for Shell Petroleum. It was he who used it as a tv stand in his South Kensington apartment for 16 years and he took the chest with him when, after his retirement, he moved to a modest little house the Loire Valley. There he used it as a bar.
After the deaths of their parents, the family of the engineer engaged the auction house Rouillac to appraise and sell the estate. On 9 June of this year the chest was offered at auction by Rouillac at Château de Cheverny. And there, as we saw in the previous post, the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum bought it for the largest sum ever paid for a tv stand. Eventually the chest will be exhibited not, as one would expect, in the museum’s new Asiatic Pavillion but in one of the 17th century galleries. Perhaps the thought behind it is that the chest was commissioned for the Dutch VOC company as a luxury export product, but I would rather see it in the Asiatic Pavillion as a testimony to the artistic brilliance of Koami Nagashige and his workshop.
I need not think long of a name for it. Not the Lawrence chest as the V&A and auction house Rouillac have dubbed it, but I would like for it to be called Koami Chest in honour of its maker or, if it has to be a Western name, Caron Chest in honour of the adventurous and entrepreneurial François Caron we met in the previous post at the beginning of the chest’s story. After all, the chest and its companions would never have been created if it had not been for him and we would not have been able to enjoy and admire its lavish beauty today.
- I am indebted to the French auction house Rouillac which has, in as far as possible, outlined the provenance of the chest. Where necessary I have verified or contradicted their conclusions. Should the Rijksmuseum publish their new research on the chest and its provenance and should that yield significant new insights, I will post an update on this page.