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A SUPERB LACQUER SUZURIBAKO WITH A ‘WATERWHEEL’ MERCURY MECHANISM
LOT 6 - AK0124

Buy now for €20,800.00



Lot details

Japan, second half of 18th century, Edo period (1615-1868)

Of rectangular form with recessed gold fundame edges, bearing a superb gyobu nashiji ground finely decorated in gold, brown, and red hiramaki-e and takamaki-e with kirigane and e-nashiji with farmers working in rice-paddies, below a bone waterwheel and mercury waterfall contained in a cavity set into the thickness of the lid and covered with glass or crystal so that it can be tilted to make the mercury turn the waterwheel, the water running from the waterwheel through a channel onto the rice paddies, further with craggy rockwork, gnarled trees, huts and buildings and two cranes. The base and interior of rich nashiji, the interior further with gold fundame edges, the cover similarly decorated with a bird perched on a rocky outcrop over two ducks swimming in the gushing water with sailing boats and lined with clam shells, the bird and some of the shells subtly inlaid with glazed ceramic, all below mountains in the background, the roaring sea with boats and shells repeated on the removable ita (baseboard) fitted with a cloud-form gilt-metal waterdropper (suiteki) and rectangular slate inkstone (suzuri). With an old wood tomobako inscribed to the lid Jidai makie suzuribako (‘An old period piece, lacquer writing box’), and a protective cloth.

SIZE 4.4 x 24.6 x 22.5 cm

Condition: Very good condition, minor wear, traces of use, few fine age cracks to the top of the cover, minor flaking to lacquer here and there, mostly to interior edges. The mercury mechanism in full working order.

During the seventeenth century, lacquer craftsmen working on very high-quality writing boxes came up with a decorative device which was to be repeated from time to time until the latter part of the nineteenth century. Waterfalls and waterwheels depicted by partly filling small glass or horn-topped reservoirs with mercury only rarely appear on the market, but when they do, they remain as fascinating to the modern eye as they must have been to that of the seventeenth-century client. The novelty of these writing boxes did not in any way diminish the seriousness of the craftsman’s application of his work.

These mechanisms are usually set into the outside of the covers of writing boxes and, rarely, smaller boxes and inro; when the piece is tilted backwards, the mercury retires into the invisible top part of the reservoir. When it is tilted in the opposite direction towards the vertical, mercury is released through a smaller channel than that through which it disappeared, giving the impression of light on ripples of cascading water, turning the waterwheel at the foot of the fall, and finishing its journey in a pool beyond.

The ‘waterworks’ on the present lid actually make a sound as they run. Inside the lid is a reservoir of mercury and when the lid is held vertically, the mercury streams down the falls and the aqueduct with a gurgling sound. The mercury flows for as long as around fourteen seconds when the lid is lifted and recharges invisibly and silently when the lid is pointed downward. Since the surfaces of the falls and aqueduct are glass, the sparkling flow is visible as well as audible.

Literature comparison:
A closely related Genroku-period lacquered suzuribako, with a similar mercury mechanism to simulate waterworks, showing a nobleman and his attendants crossing a bridge with a working waterwheel beside it, is illustrated in Casal, V.A. (1961) Japanese Art Lacquers, no. 27. pl. XII.

Museum comparison:
A closely related lacquered suzuribako, with a similar mercury mechanism to simulate waterworks, depicting a tumultuous river in a mountainous landscape, is in the collection of the Freer Gallery of Art in the National Museum of Asian Art, Smithsonian Institution, accession number F1972.5.

Auction comparison:
Compare a closely related lacquered suzuribako, with a similar mercury mechanism to simulate waterworks, depicting rice-paddies beneath the slope of a mountain down which a stream flows into an irrigation channel to the interior, at Christie’s, Netsuke & Lacquer from the Japanese Department of Eskenazi, 17 November 1999, London, lot 12 (sold for GBP 9,755 or approx. EUR 26,000 converted and adjusted for inflation at the time of writing). Compare a closely related lacquered suzuribako, the second from a group of seven, with a similar mercury mechanism to simulate waterworks, depicting peasants working in rice-paddies around a giant waterwheel beneath a tree-clad cliff down which descends a waterfall, at Christie’s, Japanese Art and Design, 16 June 1999, London, lot 175 (estimate GBP 150,000).

 

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