Early 13th/14th Century; extinct Sophora (Huai) wood, pine or other soft wood for secondary framework; excellent condition; Shanxi.
This coffer is very 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 excessive use as building material during the Yuan and Ming dynasties. The tree grew only about an inch a year so the wood is very dense; since it is also naturally resistant to moisture and insect damage, it was the wood of choice as building material during those early periods. The excessive use eventually caused the demise of the tree. So, any furniture made from this wood is commonly determined to be at least a Ming piece.
During the early Ming period, the society was very much a society dominated by the scholar class which pursued writing, painting, and collecting pottery and vases in their leisure time. A long exceptional-looking table like this coffer must have belonged to someone of very high scholar/official class. Its wide surface allows the scholar to paint and write on it. As banks did not exist at that early age, a coffer with hidden space below the drawers were used to conceal some of his valuable personal belongings.
This classic-looking long 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 completely through to the surface of the top to give good support. Each drawer front is carved with a ribbon-shaped beaded recessed section inside which is carved in relief a pointed-leaf motif, with a long and narrow iron pull in its center that can be locked to a ring on a lower frame stretcher. All metal-ware is original. Below each drawer is a plain panel behind which hides a secret compartment. Subdividing frame members are molded to sharp ridges on both sides. 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 long coffer shows a balance and elegance the elite class of old favors.
This coffer was found in China in the early stage of China opening to the West, and was never anywhere else in the world until it became part of our collection. It was found with a grayish patina of old age, but otherwise survived in excellent condition, no doubt due to being hidden in Shanxi, geographically guarded by The Great Wall, which helped to prevent many Chinese treasures from being destroyed by wars in other parts of China. The relatively dry climate also helps in preserving wood furniture.
The coffer has been restored to its archaic beauty with cleaning and application of the natural ‘lac’ from the lacquer trees that flourish in Shanxi. This lac not only restored the natural luster to the wood, it also helps to preserve the wood, making it ready to face the next 100 years!
According to an early chronical about China, “Imperial Peking: Seven Centuries of China”, by Lin Yutang, the last Ming Emperor , Tsungcheng, hanged himself on a Sophora tree in 1643 when he realized he was about to lose his kingdom. The author speculated that in the 13th century, Kublai Khan collected trees he deemed beautiful from lands he conquered and brought back to Peking to be planted in palace ground. The Sophora might be one of them. If true, this beautiful table is not only rare because of its age and wood, it also has historical significance.