Exceptional Korean Safe Chest with Sharkskin Inlaid Flower Clusters

Circa 1860, Yi Dynasty; found on Kanghwa Island
Black lacquer over Zelkova wood, sharkskin, yellow brass wire, iron fittings
H. 28.5”, L. 34.5”, D. 17”

A safe chest was an important piece of furniture for an upper-class family in Yi Dynasty period as banks were not in existence then. It would be placed in a private inner room of the main heated floor room of the house where important documents, jewelry, and other family treasures would be kept.

This safe chest is so exquisitely made it must have been made for a member of the extended royal family or the ‘yangban’ (landed aristocracy) class. It is done with black lacquer over Zelkova wood which was highly prized in Korea as well as Japan for its density and durability. It is decorated on all sides except the back with clusters of flowers inlaid with rare and expensive sharkskin. The flowers are dispersed on twining reverse twisted yellow brass wires. The round lock-plate has a pair of double-hook pull handles. Between the hooks as ornament is a chrysanthemum flower head which is emblem of a pleasant life and generosity. Locking is by inserting a locking device through two inserted rings on the upper, middle part of the lock-plate. The door hinges have extended corner-braces for extra strength. All these fittings are of iron, which is favored by the scholar/official class who were adherents of Buddhism and Confucianism of that period for the metal’s purity and quiet strength. The chest is attached to a stand with relief-carved hoof feet on a side floor stretcher. The inside of the chest is lined with paper and has a slat high on each side which indicates at one time there was a shelf there.

This chest was found after the Japanese Occupation by an American missionary doctor who was invited to go to Kanghwa Island, a political prison colony for the Kingdom of Korea for two thousand years, to treat the sick and the dying. He was allowed to take away anything the exiled took there as the ruling scholar/official class did not care for anything belonging to the prisoners. For his humanitarian work, the doctor was honored with Korean citizenship. He spent the rest of his life in Korea. This chest was later passed on to a Korean Professor of Korean History and Antiquity who certified this safe chest as rare.