Korean Palace Stacked Chest Inlaid with Nacre Star-burst Design (bottom piece)


1860, Choson Dynast; black lacquer on lime wood, mother-of-pearl inlaid.   H. 42″, W. 30.5″, D.14.5″

This two-unit stacked chest (nong) is elaborately inlaid on the front, top, and side panels with mother-of-pearl star-burst design, signifying joyous life, happiness and good luck.  Each unit is similarly constructed, with a pair of small doors in the center opening into a storage compartment.  The inside of each chest is lined with a variety of paper, but most has worn off.  Paper lining was essential to preserve the wood and keep contents inside the chest from weather damage as Korea is known to have big weather fluctuation.

This two-unit chest is fitted with simple round shape lock-plates and hinges made of iron.  The use of this unassuming metal for fittings on such an exquisitely decorated piece is in keeping with Choson high society of the time whose members were adherents of Buddhism and Confucianism, favoring iron for its purity and quiet strength.  The combination of mother-of-pearl and iron on this chest somehow created a piece of furniture with understated elegance.  The chest sits on simple wood block side-stretchers to lift it off the “ondol” system heated floor featured in most upper-class Korean houses.

This magnificent chest was likely made for a bride of the royal family, or of the Yangban class (landed aristocracy) as a chest with such expensive decoration could only be afforded by a wealthy family.  This stacked chest is a clothing chest called “nong” in Korea.  It is traditionally put in the women’s part of the house to store her small clothing items.  This chest came with a similarly decorated wedding box for the bride to store her small personal belongings such as socks and intimate wear.  This box would be placed on top of the “nong”.  The two pieces would likely be presented at the same wedding occasion as a star-burst mother-of-pearl design is quite unusual, signifying wealth and a long blissful life.  The two pieces will be sold separately.

This 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 items the exiled took there as the ruling scholar/official class did not care for any items belonging to the prisoners, especially furniture.  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 chest as quite rare.