Rare Korean Eel Skin Two-unit Stacked Chest Inlaid with Five-clawed Dragon

Circa 1870, Yi Dynasty; found on Kanghwa Island
Eel skin, pear wood, brass-wire inlay, iron fittings
H. 55.5’, L. 37.5”, D. 17.5”

This eel skin inlaid dragon and phoenix decorated chest could be one of the rarest and most valuable Korean antique chests in the world.  Not only is the eel skin used on this two-units chest extremely rare and expensive, the design of the dragon with five claws makes this piece in no doubt specially made for the royal palace as in ancient Korea as well as in China, the use of the five-clawed dragon emblem is restricted to the royal family.  At this time, there are supposed to be only five eel skin inlaid, five-clawed dragon chests in the world.  One is known to be in a museum in Europe, perhaps in Brussels.

This stacked chest has the upper unit constructed with four drawers, below which is a storage compartment with a pair of small doors in the middle.  The unit below is mirror image of the top but without drawers.  On each unit are impressive eel skin inlays of a dragon and a phoenix, with the dragon having five claws.  Both their bodies are vigorously twining to take over not only the whole front but also the sides and the top of the chest.  The dragon’s head, patches of his long writhing body, and his five-clawed legs are done in pear wood, a hardwood chosen for its smooth grain pattern, not easily cracked, and for its lasting quality.  His body is outlined with thick twisted yellow brass-wire.  The phoenix also has her head done in pear wood but her whole body, including the feet, are done in eel skin, with the twisted brass-wire lined tail feathers fanning gloriously all over her side of the chest.

This two-unit chest sits on a removable stand decorated with a curvilinear lower edge, metal corner braces, and ends with elegant, curved legs resting on side floor-stretchers.  The metal fittings on these chests are made of iron, a tribute to the elite scholar/official class who were adherents of Buddhism and Confucianism, favoring the common iron for its purity and quiet strength.  Like most storage chests in Korea, the inside of the chest is lined with paper to help in withstanding moisture and the extreme temperature fluctuations Korea is known to have.  Most of the lining has deteriorated from aging and, at some time or other, replaced by whatever new lining was available.

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