Rare Long Early Ming Four Drawers Coffer

Lacquered Finish

13th/14th Century; extinct Sophora (Huai) wood, pine and other soft wood for secondary framework; all-original and in excellent condition; Shanxi.

This coffer is rare not only because of its age but also because of its wood.  The Sophora is a tree extinct after the Ming period due to its slow growth and its wood over-use during the Yuan (1279-1368) and Ming (1368-1644) dynasties.  It was the wood of choice as furniture building material because it is not only dense, it also naturally resists moisture and insect damage, in addition to having beautiful deep grain patterns that make painted decorations unnecessary.

This coffer is rare not only because of its age but also because of its wood.  The Sophora is a tree extinct after the Ming period due to its extreme slow growth and its wood overused during the Yuan(1279-1368) and Ming (1368-1644) dynasties.  It was the wood of choice as furniture building material because it is not only dense and strong, it also naturally resist moisture and insect damage , in addition to having beautiful deep wood grains that make painted decorations unnecessary.

During the early Ming period, the society was dominated by the scholar class which pursued writing, painting, and collecting pottery and vases in their leisure time.  An exceptional-looking table like this coffer, which is a table with hidden space below its drawers, must have belonged to someone of the elite scholar/official class.  Its wide surface allows the scholar to paint and write on it and the hidden space could be used to store some of his valuable personal belongings as banks did not exist at that early age.

This table has a textured floating panel at the top, which is attached to the frame members with traditional mitered, mortise-and-tenon joints.  Since the table is so long, the body is supported by three legs in front and three in the back.  Long tenons from the legs penetrate through to the surface of the top to give good support.  Each drawer front is carved with a beaded ribbon-shaped recessed section inside which is carved in relief a pointed-leaf motif, with a long and narrow iron pull in its center that can reach a ring on the top frame member of the panel below the drawer, thereby conveniently locking up the drawer and the hidden space below.  The storage spaced is revealed only when the drawer is pulled out.  This feature is important to the upper class as banks did not exist then so the coffer offered a way to store and lock up some of his treasured personal belongings.  Stretchers and struts dividing the drawers and the storage panels are molded to sharp ridges.  A long apron in front is separated by the middle leg into two sections, with each section pieced with a scrolling grass motif.  An elaborate openwork carving of scrolling-leaf design is done on the long spandrel going down each side of the leg in front.  The table has a recessed panel on each side, with a stretcher below it.

This coffer was found in Shanxi in the early stage of China opening to the West.  It showed a grayish patina of old age but otherwise survived in excellent condition.  The coffer was restored to its archaic beauty with cleaning and application of the natural ‘lac’ from the lacquer trees that flourish in Shanxi.  The lac not only restored the natural luster to the wood, it also helps to preserve the wood.  This long coffer shows a balance and elegance the elite class of old favored.  It would be hard to find an unique piece like this anywhere in the world today.  It is a museum piece.

 

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