This fine wooden writing box is of huanghuali wood (海南黄檀), with a tielimu wood panel to the base, and engraved paktong (baitong) mounts. It is a 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, and belongs to a small but important group.
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 from Batavia or Sri Lanka. The joints, for example, have been completed with fine, tightly fitting dovetail joins.
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 tradition. It is one of a small group of such boxes known to have survived.
We are aware of relatively few of these types boxes. One was offered at Christies in 2011 (see here – the Christie’s example, in poorer condition than the example here, was not correctly identified, although some in the market seems to have established its importance bidding the sale price way beyond the estimate and closer to its likely worth.)
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 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.
The involvement of the Dutch in China was somewhat brief. A milestone was the Battle of Liaoluo Bay. It took place in 1633 off the coast of Fujian, China, and involved the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and the Chinese Ming dynasty’s naval forces. The Dutch fleet under Hans Putmans, the governor of the Dutch settlement on Formosa or Taiwan (which was under the control of the VOC’s headquarters in Batavia) had attempted to control shipping in the Taiwan Strait. But southern Fujian sea traffic and trade was protected by a fleet under the Chinese Zheng Zhilong, hitherto a pirate leader and a late recruit to the Ming administration’s cause. (The Dutch were keen to control shipping in the area for trade reasons but also because it enabled them to cut Manila’s communications with Macao and China. Ultimately, the Portuguese were bettered by the Dutch in Asia because they developed a far more extensive system of intra-Asia trade.) Zheng Zhilong was victorious and thereafter and with the defeat of other Chinese pirates, he held uncontested hegemony over the China trade. The VOC learned to accommodate and trade with him, and he grew to become the wealthiest merchant in China.
The Dutch were unable to expand their interests in China as a consequence, and had to settle for their presence on Formosa. It was from here that they were able to engage in the China trade, sourcing items that had been bright across from the mainland. But even this ended in 1662, when the Dutch were forced from Taiwan altogether. The brief association that the VOC had with China has ensured that China-trade items made for the VOC such as this document box are uncommon. 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 is 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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