Gustav Rau’s troubled legacy comes to Groningen

The exhibition “Natural beauty – from Fra Angelico to Monet” at the Groninger Museum

What is it about art that brings out the worst in some people? The answer is, sadly, that its monetary value increasingly takes over from its artistic and emotional merit. On 7 December 2013 the exhibition Natural Beauty, from Fra Angelico to Monet opened at the Groninger Museum. The exhibition shows part of the collection of the excentric German millionaire Gustav Rau (1922-2002) who, over a period of four decades, built a collection consisting of 786 paintings, sculptures and artifacts spanning six centuries. Unintended by Rau who designated his collection to be sold after his death to benefit charity, the collection has been the subject of legal and even political battles for years, starting during Rau’s lifetime and continuing until today.

Two passions

Gerard Dou, The Cook, 1660-5, 29 x 23.2 cm, oil on panel, purchased 1958

Gustav Rau was destined to follow in his father’s footsteps and work for the prosperous Stuttgart family business in auto parts. At the outset of World War II he was drafted into the Wehrmacht but managed to escape to London where he was held captive as a German national. Having returned to Stuttgart after the war, he started to collect art at the age of 38, his first purchase being Gerard Dou’s small trompe l’oeil painting of a cook.

Soon after he turned forty Rau began studying medicine, specialising in tropical diseases. He had never loved the family business and had only studied economics to please his parents. At forty-eight, a year after his father died, he sold the family business for DM 400 million (USD 110 million) and found his true calling in Africa, eventually settling in Zaire (now Congo-Kinshasa), building a clinic in Ciriri where he lived in spartan conditions. Not surprisingly, his great example was Dr. Albert Schweitzer. But corruption ran rife in Zaire with in its wake appalling poverty and it was not easy to accomplish much of anything there. Perhaps art was an antidote to all this. Every few months Rau traveled to Europe where, in his ankle-high hiking boots and khakis he was a frequent and memorable sight in auction rooms.

Rau, a devout Christian, never married and died childless. It seems almost impossible to reconcile the dichotomy in the man’s character: on the one hand a passionate art collector, spending millions on priceless artworks; on the other equally passionately dedicated to alleviating suffering in a small corner of Africa. Neither was an affectation. In both, it seems, he was equally sincere. When it came to art, after having been repeatedly duped in the early years of buying, Rau selected each work personally, shunning professional advice. The economist in him made that he was rarely tempted to offer more than the price he had intended to pay. He did not focus on a single area of art or attempt an academic survey of period or theme. Each individual work triggered his personal esthetic and emotional response and each acquisition was bought for the pleasure of looking at it. Only: he did that very rarely. Everything remained stored in a duty-free warehouse in Embrach, Switzerland for decades.

If there is any unifying theme running through the collection it has to be the human face, not surprising perhaps for a great humanitarian. One feels the humanity in the characters in his collection, not only in paintings, but also in the sculptures, in the medieval depictions of the suffering Christ. But his business sense never left him: he would seldom spend more on an art work than he had originally intended.

Due to health problems (a cerebral hemmoraghe after complications from double knee surgery) and the increasing instability in the region, Rau left Ciriri forever in 1992, settling in Monaco and later returning home to Germany. Throughout Rau built his art collection to form a legacy that would ultimately benefit the Third World by diminishing misery and disease through preventative practices and the distribution of medication and food. To this aim Rau established three foundations in the 1970s and ’80s. His plan at the time was to donate his entire fortune in the Crelona Foundation which would then pay his living expenses; everything remaining after his death would go to a fourth foundation: the Rau Foundation for the Third World.


Harmen Evertsz. van Steenwyck, Still-life, ca. 1650, 32.2×44.2 cm. Photo: Hans G. Scheib, Cologne

But in Monaco the ailing Rau had begun to medicate himself, devising a pharmacological programme for himself that proved disastrous. He was sometimes discovered roaming the streets, lost and disoriented. This raised doubts about his mental faculties and lawsuits followed to prove him incapable of running his affairs. In March 1998 a financial administrator was appointed by the Monaco court. Later that same year a Zürich lawyer and board member of one of Rau’s charitable foundations successfully petitioned the Swiss government to freeze Rau’s Swiss bank account and the art works on the grounds that his “entourage” (Rau’s personal secretary and his confidente, a graphologist) might take advantage of the ailing collector. The “entourage” appealed and legal battles in Switzerland, Monaco, Germany and Liechtenstein followed.

In 1998, with the legal battles over his competency raging, Rau took action to prove that he was not the helpless vegetable his detractors made him out to be. With the help of a former art lecturer at the Sorbonne exhibitions of his masterpieces were staged, originally intended to go to only five Japanese museums. The Swiss government permitted the art to leave the country on condition that it would return immediately but it did not: after Japan Rau sent it to the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris, igniting a diplomatic battle that pitted the French government against the Swiss. The exhibition then traveled to Rotterdam, Cologne, Munich and Bergamo and caused a sensation wherever it went.

An emotional and frail-looking Gustav Rau at the September 2001 press conference

Rau eventually seized control over his affairs and held a press conference in September 2001 announcing the donation of his entire collection to UNICEF Germany. “I know my material possessions are in good hands now. I entrust them to an organisation that is committed to one cause only, to which I have given my own life: helping destitute children”, an emotional Rau said. At the same time he stipulated that the core collection, some 125 paintings, should stay together for a twenty-five year period, which will end in 2026. Gustav Rau died in early January 2002. But it didn’t stop there. The legal wrangles did not only follow from doubts about Rau’s mental capacity but also from his many wills: which was actually valid? Moreover, if the court would rule that Rau had been mentally incompetent in September 2001, the donation to UNICEF Germany would become null and void.

On top of it all, Rau’s death was considered suspect. In 2003 the Stuttgart district attorney opened a homicide investigation on the suspicion that the doctor had been poisoned. Excessive doses of Parkinson medication had been found in Rau’s body that could not be justified as medication; it was further believed that Rau, greatly weakened, could not have administered these doses himself. The case was eventually dismissed but doubts remain to this day.

More legal hassles

Jean Honoré Fragonard, Portrait of François-Henri, 5th duc d’Harcourt, 81x 65cm

In spite of a 2008 German verdict deciding that Rau was competent at the time when he left his collection to UNICEF Germany and that the organisation is therefore the rightful heir, the legal wrangles only continued. It would go too far to list them all here, but the latest inquiry is being conducted by the Zürich prosecutor’s office on the basis of a complaint brought by the council of Bülach, the district where Rau had stored the collection for years, just days before a major auction at Bonhams in London of ninety-two works from the collection that included paintings by Pissarro and Fragonard. The auction, on 5 December 2013, went ahead and Fragonard’s portrait was sold for a record 17.1 million pounds ($27.9 million). The painting had been Rau’s personal favourite. The aim of the current complaint seems to be to have Rau’s collection returned to Switzerland. But there is no destination envisaged should the district council win the case which, in any case, is very doubtful. Most likely it would end up in the duty-free warehouse once again.

The district attorney of Stuttgart has just announced that he has opened a homicide investigation in relation to the death of the renowned art collector Gustav Rau , who compiled a formidable collection of art that he donated to Unicef, to whose work in Africa he dedicated the last decades of his life. The newspaper “Der Standard” from Vienna and a public Austrian television station commented that Gustav Rau could have been poisoned. Eckhard Maak, a spokesman from the district attorney’s office in the capital of Baden-Württemberg, confirmed to a reporter that there is enough suspicion that encouraged them to reopen their investigation months ago. According to him, “doctors found in his body excessive doses of a substance that would not be justified with a medication”, he declared to the online edition of “Focus”. Rau died two years ago, at 79 near Stuttgart, the auto capital of Germany, where he inherited and multiplied a massive fortune. Institutions and foundations had been fighting over Rau’s inheritance for years, even trying to prove that he was mentally incapacitated ever since he decided to work as a doctor in Africa, build a hospital in Congo, and modify his testament to donate 750 works of art to Unicef. His collection of art from the Renaissance to the XX Century includes paintings and sculptures by artists such as El Greco, Munch, Degas, Monet and Renoir. He began to collect art in 1958 attending auctions throughout the world. His collection, valued at about 500 million euros, is the second largest private collection in the world after the Thyssen Collection.

The remaining art has gradually been sold through three auction houses to benefit UNICEF Germany’s humanitarian work: Sotheby’s and Bonham’s in London and Kunsthaus Lempertz in Cologne. One of the works recently auctioned at Sotheby’s is an exquisite and rare early French ivory triptych with scenes from the Life of the Virgin with traces of original polychromy and gilding, dated c. 1310-20, fittingly known today as the Gustav Rau Triptych.

The question can validly be asked whether UNICEF Germany is not being compromised by all this and whether, with hindsight, they might even regret Gustav Rau’s donation. Time and time again reactions to new allegations appear on their website – it keeps their lawyers very busy. It is sad that a well-meant and generous humanitarian gift has become so encumbered.

Michael Sweerts

Readers of this blog will remember my fascination with the Flemish painter Michael Sweerts. Two works in the Rau collection to be exhibited until 2026 are by him, that is to say: one of them is in such a deplorable state that it can no longer be established if it is an autograph work or a contemporary free copy of the painting called The Schoolroom, discussed in an earlier post.

The other is an autograph work now in the exhibition in Groningen: it is one of the paintings of the Seven Acts of Mercy series. The Rijksmuseum so far owns four of the series. I hope that when the time comes, 2026, they will consider buying Harbouring the Stranger, which is every bit as mysterious and compassionate a work as the others in the series. The composition is evidently based on the iconography of the travellers on the road to Emmaus where Christ, dressed as a pilgrim, meets two of his disciples. It is the man in the middle who is of particular interest. He is staring straight at the viewer, drawing us into the scene. It is Michael Sweerts himself. About thirty at the time, his features are recognisable from, for example, his self-portrait in the Uffizi. Not only would the Rijksmuseum acquire another painting in this magnificent series, but at the same time a Sweerts self-portrait. The economist in Gustav Rau would be pleased: two for the price of one.


For a full overview of the Rau Collection (texts in German), see:

The three catagories were compiled in September 2013 and do not incorporate the sales results of the auctions held in the fall of 2013.


The most expensive tv stand in the world (2)

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.

The former VOC warehouse in Amsterdam, demolished 1890. Photo: Stadsarchief

The former VOC warehouse in Amsterdam, demolished 1890. Photo: Stadsarchief

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.

Cardinal Mazarin in His Palace, engraving by Robert Nanteuil, 1659. The auction house Rouillac suggests that the table the Cardinal is leaning on is the Rijksmuseum chest. This is difficult to say as it is covered by a cloth but the object has the correct height.

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”.

Three of the seven nieces of Cardinal Mazarin: Marie-Anne (left), Olympia (center), and Hortense (right), 1660s

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. 

The V&A's

The V&A’s “Mazarin Chest”. Photo credit: V&A

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.

The Duc de Bouillon as a child, playing a hurdy-gurdy, with his brother, by François-Hubert Drouais, 1756

The Duc de Bouillon as a child, playing a hurdy-gurdy, with his brother, by François-Hubert Drouais, 1756

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.

The Van Diemen box, so named because the name of the wife of Antonio van Diemen, Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies in the first half of the 17th century, is carved on the inside of the lid. Photo credit: V&A

The Van Diemen box, so named because the name of the wife of Antonio van Diemen, Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies in the first half of the 17th century, is carved on the inside of the lid. Photo credit: V&A

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 by George Romney, 1782

William Beckford by George Romney, 1782

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

Fonthill Abbey from John Rutter’s “Delineations of Fonthill” (1823)

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. 

The Duke of Hamilton by George Raeburn, c. 1812-23

The Duke of Hamilton by George Raeburn, c. 1812-23

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.

From 1916 auction catalogue. Photo credit: V&A Museum

Photos from the 1916 auction catalogue. Photo credit: V&A

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.

At the Château de Cheverny auction with, ironically, Cardinal Mazarin sternly looking on in the background. Photo: Rouillac


  • 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.

The most expensive TV stand in the world (1)

Photo credit: Rouillac

I haven’t seen it yet, the 17th century Japanese lacquer chest acquired by the Rijksmuseum at an auction held at Château de Chevery in the Loire Valley on 9 June, 2013. The chest is currently being studied and restored, the latter a hazardous enterprise due to the complexity of the techniques used on the delicate decorations. The auction was a blood-curdling one: the opening amount of Euro 200,000 rose dramatically until finally two persistent bidders (the Rijksmuseum and an unidentified American museum) battled it out among themselves. The Rijksmuseum won, paying Euro 7,311,000. What makes this chest so special and why is it of such importance to a Dutch Museum?

Who commissioned the Rijksmuseum chest?

The Dutch factory in Hirado, 1669

The Dutch factory in Hirado, 1669

In 1635, after a period of having encouraged foreign trade, the Tokugawa Shogunate changed course as a result of its determination to exterminate Christian influence in Japan. Seclusion Laws were introduced prohibiting foreigners from entering Japan (and the Japanese from leaving). The only foreign ships allowed in Japanese territory were Chinese, Korean and Dutch but their movements were highly restricted. The monopoly for trading with Europe therefore fell entirely in the hands of the Dutch United East India Company (VOC) and this also comprised expensive luxury products.

Princess Chiyohime’s trousseau at the Tokugawa Art Museum, Nagoya

The finest lacquer destined for export was produced during a brief period by the Koami family, headed by Koami Nagashige (1599-1651). The Koami family workshop was the official supplier of lacquer to the Tokugawa Shogunate. Between 1637 and 1639 they completed a Hatsune Konrei Maki-e, a bridal trousseau, on the occasion of the engagement of the two-year-old heir of the Tokugawa dynasty, Princess Chiyhime. This trousseau consisted of seventy-five lacquer boxes decorated with scenes from the Tale of Genji (Genji Monogatari), a masterpiece of prose written in the early 11th century by a lady of the court, Murasaki Shikibu. It is believed that the Rijksmuseum chest was made in the same workshop, commissioned by the Dutch Japan VOC trade mission and destined for the European market, which explains its interest for a Dutch museum. Until the Rijksmuseum acquired the lacquer chest no Dutch museum owned a VOC commissioned Japanese art work of such importance and exquisite beauty.

True description of he Mighty Kingdom of Japan, expanded Dutch edition

True description of he Mighty Kingdom of Japan, expanded Dutch edition

Nothing is known about the Rijksmuseum chest’s early history, but it is likely that François Caron (1600-1673), born in Brussels of Huguenot parents, may have commissioned it together with other lacquer chests to sell them on the European market. Caron is an intriguing figure with an adventurous career that took him to Japan, Siam, Taiwan and Madagascar. He was the first European to publish on Japan. His Beschrijvinghe van het machtigh conincrijcke Japan (Description of the Mighty Kingdom Japan) was published in 1649 without his co-operation; the later edition of 1661, approved by Caron and illustrated with engravings, saw several translations into English, German and French. This later edition contained a Q and A section with Caron answering questions about the Japanese way of life, trading conditions, the position of Japanese women, government and justice system, including cruelties perpetrated against Christians and a lengthy account on seppuku (harakiri, which he calls “belly-cutting”). The ritual apparently fascinated him so much that he used an illustration of it on the frontispiece of his book (see illustration).

Model of the Dutch Dejima trading post at the Dejima Museum, Nagasaki

Model of the Dutch Dejima trading post at the Dejima Museum, Nagasaki

Caron began his career as a cook’s mate on board a Dutch merchant vessel bound for Japan, arriving there in 1619. His language skills soon developed and in 1627 he traveled to Edo as the interpreter for the VOC trade mission to the shogunal capital. He would live in Japan for over twenty years, eventually becoming the VOC’s opperhoofd (chief factor) there. He and his Japanese wife had six children. His family followed him to the small artificial island Dejima near Nagasaki when the Japanese forced the Dutch to abandon their outpost at Hirado and moved with him to Batavia when he left Japan in 1641 following the expiry of his VOC contract there.

Caron established a canon foundry in Japan; this 17th c. canon with the VOC logo is in the Nagasaki Dejima Museum

Caron established a canon foundry in Japan; this 17th c. canon with the VOC logo is in the Nagasaki Dejima Museum

In spite of many difficulties which even led to his having been held hostage, Caron managed to ingratiate himself with Shogunate’s leaders and due to his proximity to them may have been aware of the extraordinary trousseau for the little Princess. In October 1643 the Dutch merchant ship Orangienboom left Japan for Batavia with on board four lacquer chests described as extrordinarij schoon (extremely fine). Each of these chests was valued more than four times the price of usual export lacquers. It was possible that Caron commissioned the chests between 1639 and 1641 and that they were shipped out to him later – lacquer chests of this quality took two to three years to complete. If so it must have been a risky enterprise since the Shogunate had instituted a law in August 1641 expressly forbidding the export of “art objects, including objects of lacquer”. Punishment for violation of this law was beheading. It is also possible that the Rijksmuseum chest accompanied Caron and his family when they left Japan in 1641. Evidently more research is needed.

If Caron had intended to sell his chests in Europe for a good price he was to be disappointed. Europe was destabilised by war and the cost of these expensive luxury items was prohibitive. Their delicate nature made that they could not be used for storage (although as we will see in the next post, this changed over time) and were regarded as objects of art solely.

Maki-e techniques and iconography of the Rijksmuseum chest

Whoever may have commissioned it, the Rijksmuseum chest is certainly related to the little Princess’ boxes, both in its execution and in its iconography. It is executed in some of the most difficult, complex and time-consuming techniques. Translated directly, maki-e means “sprinkled technique” and involves the application of lacquer followed by the sprinkling on of metal powders of different colours, shapes and degrees of finesse.

Photo credit: Rouillac

Many variations of the basic maki-e technique were used on the chest’s decorations. For instance, takamaki-e (raised sprinkled picture) decoration was used to create the tree trunk shown above. It is built up and modelled in low relief using a mixture of lacquer and fine clay prior to being sprinkled with gold powder. Small pieces of gold and silver foil known as kirikane (cut gold/metal) were applied to add variety and texture.

Photo credit: Rouillac

Every exterior panel except for the rear panel which only has one band is surrounded by a geometric frieze of three bands consisting of maki-e decoration combined with mother-of-pearl (raden) and metal foil (hyomon and kanagai) inlay showing three repeated Môn (Japanese heraldic symbols), alternating magnolia flowers with six petals, Dharma wheels and lotus flowers with eight branches. Mother-of-pearl has been used for the floral roundels in the wide, central band. Hyomon, which refers to the application of thick foil, has been used for the wheel roundels in the central band and for the zigzag band below, in both cases executed in silver which has oxidised over time. Kanagai refers to the application of thin foil such as that used for the gold banding above.

Short lengths of untwisted (marusen) and twisted (yorisen) gold and silver wire were used for the railings and other details of buildings, bridges and boats, and also in the representation of natural features. Silver sheet was cut to shape to represent roof ridges. The small silver ringlets (ginbyo) on the plants represent dew.

Photo credit: Rouillac

Lacquer for the domestic market rarely included figures as convention dictated that explicit narrative should be avoided and the depiction of a few key elements from a particular chapter or episode of a story was deemed to be sufficient to invoke the necessary association. This was not so for export lacquer. The chest’s front panel, for instance, shows thirty-six characters and many animals (ducks, chickens, dogs) from Chapter 28 of the Tale of Genji which tells how, after a storm, women gather flowers. Depicted are palaces and gardens in a wonderful alternating architecture.

The lid's exterior

The lid’s exterior. Photo credit: Rouillac

The top of the lid is decorated with one of the Eight Views of Ōmi (Ōmi Hakkei) and shows twenty-one figures and animals playing around the mountain temple Ishiyama Dera where Murasaki Shikibu began writing the Tale of Genji while the inside of the lid is decorated with twenty-nine characters depicting a hunting scene from the Tale of the Soga Brothers. It was during this hunt that the Soga Brothers killed the murderer of their father. The scene shows many hunting images in a manner that is both majestic and anecdotal and we also see the Emperor on horseback, under a canopy, surrounded by eight soldiers. Eight horsemen hunt wild boar and deer, assisted by a dozen hunters. A variety of wildlife is present: deer, wild boar, rabbits, weasels and even a domesticated monkey, all placed in a landscape dominated by Mount Fuji. The scene is encased with four pairs of dragons.

Photo credit: Rouillac

Deer and other animals were created by beating out thin copper sheets, chasing in fine-line detailing and then gilding them, a technique called chokin (carved gold/metal). The components are fixed with a shitaji foundation (lacquer mixed with clay).

Photo credit: Rouillac

The lock is an artwork in itself, carved with metal magnolia flowers with two tigers and a golden dragon on a black background. The lock-plate and corner mounts are made of gilded copper partially coloured with sumi ink (soot back mixed with animal glue). The key is original.

Photo credit: Rouillac

The rear panel features three birds hovering close to two branches of magnolias; a beautiful and delicately serene scene. Magnolias flower in May and June and in Japan symbolise the summer season, which appears to be the overall theme of the decorations.

Japanese export lacquer of this quality ceased to be produced after 1641. The law prohibiting the export of art works remained in place until 1864. Because of the brief period during which these chests and boxes were produced, they are very rare. In the next post we will travel back to Europe to trace the story of the remarkable provenance of the Rijksmuseum chest and we will find out how it became, indeed, the most expensive TV stand in the world.


  1. Dutch extracts from Caron’s books can be found in P. Rietbergen, Japan verwoord. Nihon door Nederlandse ogen 1600-1799, pp. 96-156, 2003.
  2. A novel in Dutch by A.C.J. de Vrankrijker about Caron’s life appeared in 1943: François Caron: een carrière in het verre Oosten: historische roman, Elsevier, Amsterdam.
  3. A reprint from the 1671 English edition, A True Description of the Mighty Kingdoms of Japan and Siam (introduction and notes by Charles R. Boxer), appeared in 1935, Argonaut, London.
  4. On Japanese lacquer see (a.o.) Olivier Impey and Christian Jörg, Japanese Export Lacquer, 1580-1850, Hotei Publishing, Amsterdam, 2005.